Tag Archives: Comma Press

Review: The Book of Shanghai

Edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li (Comma Press, 2020)

Featuring Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Dacheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiolan, Fu Yuehui and Wang Zhanhei

Translated by Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

The Book of Shanghai is the latest in the Reading the City series from Comma Press, and brings together ten stories of alienation at the heart of a busy metropolis. This futuristic city is the perfect site to show the disenfranchisement that comes with progress, and the insidious danger of replacing relationships and human contact with technological advances. The glittering façade of Shanghai’s high-rise buildings and neon lights is rejected in favour of what happens on the streets below, as we meet an array of memorable characters navigating situations as diverse as losing a mobile phone, collecting sellable waste, floating through an apocalyptic flood in a bathtub, and the end of the world. Five of the ten included authors are women, emphasising the commitment Comma Press make to aiming for gender parity in their anthologies (you can read more about that in my interview with Comma’s Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner).

The stories in The Book of Shanghai also highlight the deep rift between human experience and the advance of technology, cybernetic umbilical cords that anchor us to the future while leaving us adrift in the present. Loneliness is a recurring theme, along with a disconnection that seems ironic in a city so plugged into global networks and development. In “The Novelist in the Attic” (Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves) a writer struggles with his legacy, and questions his usefulness in a world that has left him behind (I particularly enjoyed the following lament: “Just because I, the writer, am simple-minded, my protagonist has turned out to be a dumb fool too. Imagine that, my sole contribution to this world, nothing but the passing on of my own imbecility into fiction.”) Like other stories in the collection, “The Novelist in the Attic” has a touch of the surreal, mirroring the other-worldly sense of the murky labyrinthine streets that we see from beneath the shimmering high-rises of the city.

In several of the stories in The Book of Shanghai lives cross paths in chance encounters and stolen moments, while family bonds disintegrate and are redefined: in “The Story of Ah-Ming” (Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald), an elderly woman is cast out by her family because of the lengths she goes to in her attempts to help them, while in “Snow” (Chen Danyan, translated by Paul Harris), a woman is surrounded by relatives but still feels lonely, and escapes into literature. The city comes alive (in sometimes unnerving ways) in these tales where ruptures abound, relationships falter, and individuals hurtle perilously towards solitude, shame, failure or death. In my favourite story of the collection, “State of Trance” (Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg), we accompany one man through the last night on Earth, as he decides to take “an action that will place a perfect full stop at the end of civilisation”: his mission is to go to Shanghai Library and return the book he has borrowed.

Teeming with profound reflections, offbeat humour and unsettling observations, the individual stories hang perfectly together to create a vivid panorama of snapshots of life in a fast-moving city. Enervated and visionary, these contemporary stories acknowledge the past while focusing on an uncertain future: The Book of Shanghai is an excellent addition to a consistently innovative series.

The Comma Press podcast is back! You can hear more about The Book of Shanghai in a forthcoming episode, and if you enjoyed Europa28, you might like to tune into that episode too. You can see the series 2 schedule here.

Review copy of The Book of Shanghai provided by Comma Press

Alternative love stories from around the world

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the lockdown would change the way I provide content on the Translating Women blog. In that open letter, I made a vague mention of hoping to include some videos in my reviews; in the back of my mind at the time was a half-formed thought of recording short videos reviews on my phone. But, as one of my favourite French expressions goes, pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué? (Loose translation: why just do a selfie video on your phone when you could add IMAGES and FADING TEXT and MUSIC and MULTIPLE CLIPS?) So… here is my first foray into the world of movie making (excuse me, I think that’s Hollywood calling…) and I’m posting it here with some trepidation, in the hope that you like it as an alternative review method. My plan is to do these occasionally, interspersed with my usual written reviews, interviews and reflective pieces.

I decided to start my onscreen adventure by showcasing books I’ve already talked about in the past, all of which offer alternative takes on the “love story”. From a murderous desire to a man who lives without love, explorations of forbidden sexuality and love that words cannot contain to a race against time and memory, I hope you’ll discover or rediscover something you love.

Here are links to all the books mentioned:

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

Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press)

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)

Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Olja SavičevičSinger in the Night, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books)

If you have thoughts on the video, I’d love to hear from you! Unfortunately the comment function on the blog doesn’t work because of a glitch I still haven’t worked out, but you can either comment directly on Vimeo by clicking through, on Twitter (@translatewomen), or by emailing me at H.M.Vassallo@exeter.ac.uk

Review: Europa28 – Writing by Women on the Future of Europe

Edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press, 2020)

Europa28 is a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe, commissioned in response to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Bringing together reflections on Europe’s future from women in each of the 28 member countries (or, as things stand now, 27 plus one), it reflects the radical, engaged approach that Comma Press is known for, and is Comma’s first anthology written entirely by women. Europa28 is a visionary project, the strength of 28 voices – plus 16 translators, two editors, and the indefatigable team at Comma Press, along with their collaborators Hay Festival and Wom@rts – coming together to discuss Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility.

In her impassioned introduction to the volume, Laura Bates explains the importance of hearing the perspective of women: according to analysis cited by Bates, 90% of the discussion of Brexit in the Houses of Parliament was carried out by men. Women were left out of the debate, leaving “the certainties presented by the loudest voices” to remain enshrined as fact. “To move forward”, writes Bates, “we need new ways of seeing the world around us”, and this is exactly what Europa28 offers. There is, of course, a potential danger in selecting one woman to represent each country, but to be less even-handed about the representation would generate its own problematic hierarchies. And so while one voice cannot and should not speak for an entire country (indeed, this is a position challenged by the Europa28 project), more important is that this collection offers the space to speak, setting the perspectives of all 28 women – and the nations they represent – in dialogue with one another. It brings spoken-over voices to the fore, challenging the “default setting” of seeing the world through men’s eyes and gathering together women’s perspectives from each country within a union that, though imperfect, until recently represented our closest ally.

Editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean. Some of the contributions are reflections based on personal experience or perspective, while others are fantastical or allegorical. Some are essays, some written from an imagined future, some struggling to find the light ahead while mired in an all-too-present now. There are profound reflections on humanity, from Apolena Rychlíková’s claim (translated by Julia Sherwood) that intolerance is not buried deep in human nature but is the mindset of powerful individuals, to Janne Teller’s pronouncement that “no happiness is possible where misery abounds.” Many pieces focus on what Edurne Portela (translated by Annie McDermott) defines as “the demonisation of the different”; surveillance, silencing and “fake news” also come under fire repeatedly, as does the complicity of silence and the danger of becoming so immersed in the virtual world that we risk sacrificing our relationships with one another.

Where did these problems, barriers and divisions spring from? Rychlíková believes them to be the result of “a boiling over of long-term frustrations for unfulfilled, even if unarticulated, demands for a dignified and well-rounded life,” while Maarja Kangro points to “a new norm of ignorance, intolerance, and exclusion”, which Yvonne Hofstetter (translated by Jen Calleja) expands on in her claim that “reality is currently taking a detour through populism, protectionism, nationalism and a good dose of arrogance.” Tereza Nvotová (translated by Jakub Tlolka) suggests that we have not learned from our past (“We scale the cold neon mast and then drop back down, again and again and again. But each time we climb to the top, we forget about our previous fall”), a position advanced by Gloria Wekker, who cites “the bitter continuities and the utter lack of shame manifesting in European political attitudes towards the non-European Other” as one of the problems within the continent and the union.

The very notion of “union” is another key focus for many of the writers, who highlight the increasing disconnectedness of our – ironically – ever more connected world. Žydrūnė Vitaitė (translated by Rimas Uzgiris) cautions against the “like and re-share cemetery” of digital activism as opposed to real activism, and from a different angle Caroline Muscat warns that this digital world that we welcome as liberating can in fact be used to control us, making us complicit in the problem: “Technology fed into this populism as digital platforms – which held so much democratic promise for opening up access to information and debate across communities and countries – ended up being used as tools of repression.” If our increasing disenfranchisement is so widespread, then it is surely no coincidence that Ana Pessoa (translated by Rahul Bery) describes loneliness as “the biggest epidemic of the 21st century”: in our obsession with being “connected,” we have lost sight of what we want to connect to. To counter this, Hilary Cottam urges us to leave old models behind and “start instead with who we really are: people who are driven as much by a desire to connect and belong as by our individual goals.”

Cottam is not the only one to propose ways of moving forward, and of working towards greater understanding and deeper connections: the ability for empathy, suggests Julia Rabinowich (translated by Katy Derbyshire), “is what might help humankind survive.” Like Nvotová, Kapka Kassabova implores us to “hear the urgent message of the past” and refuse to let the past – with all its errors and misunderstandings – endlessly repeat itself, for as Ioana Nicolaie (translated by Jean Harris) warns: “If we do not learn from the mistakes of the last century, we will find ourselves alone without freedom or hope, enclosed between walls we ourselves have allowed to be built.” The possibility for change lies in our own hands, say so many of these women: we need to break through the walls we have allowed to be built and create what Lisa Dwan refers to as “a different narrative, to overcome the oppressive voices that threaten us from without and from within.”

Many of the contributions, then, suggest what we need to do to reject structures that restrict and oppress us, but others go further still to offer models of how we might set this in motion. Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor) exhorts us to be more open to others, indicating that prejudices surrounding migration could be at the root of a damaging isolation: “still today, the question of migration is fundamental, central, because the future of our continent will be decided in terms of our capacity to welcome and also to think about the Other.” Tuning out the certainties presented by the loudest voices is essential here, and Sofía Kouvelaki encourages us to do this by looking up from ourselves and outwards towards our world: “I simply want to ask people not to look away, not to look away and remain passive about the violence that is also taking place on our doorstep as Europeans.” This commitment to making connections involves us looking up and reaching out: Hofstetter advocates for exactly this in her provocation for each of us to “breathe life back into Europe, build a better future and live humanely and democratically with others.” Reading Europa28 is a fitting place to start this engagement: throughout the anthology, the personal and the local are cast as inseparable from the collective and the global, with an emphasis on sharing stories as a key to mutual understanding and tolerance. As Annelies Beck notes, “stories … can unlock hearts and minds and lay bare the shared humanity of all … They can put a wedge in shrill sounding certainties that are sold as unassailable truths.” It is important to listen to diverse stories, to understand the fullness of humanity (and specifically, to return to a key point of my last post, the “full humanity of women”), and to topple inherited or self-perpetuating certainties that threaten not only our sense of where we belong, but of who we are. As Europa28 shows us throughout, we do not need to rely on a nostalgia for what we have lost, but instead think about what we want to become.

Review copy of Europa28 provided by Comma Press.

20 books to watch out for in 2020

2020 looks set to be an exciting year for women in translation: if, like me, you’re thinking about what your reading year will hold in terms of new releases, here are 20 books to look forward to this year by women from around the world. From dystopian alternate realities and speculative fiction to a feminist retelling of ghost stories and wickedly wry reflections on modern life, this is an eclectic and exhilarating mix of personal and political literature that includes novels, short stories, fiction, memoir, autofiction and speculative fiction. Dive in and enjoy!

I have a renewed gift subscription to Tilted Axis Press this year, and so I was excited to see that 2020 looks set to be a bumper year for the press, with five of their six titles (their biggest annual catalogue to date) being by women in translation. I can’t wait for the first release, Matsuda Aoka’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, “a contemporary feminist retelling of traditional ghost stories by one of Japan’s most exciting writers” translated by Polly Barton, and am also impatient for the new Yan Ge novel, Strange Beasts of China, translated by Jeremy Tiang (I loved The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press and reviewed here), as well as the UK publication of Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. You can read publisher Deborah Smith’s take on all of the 2020 Tilted Axis titles here.

And Other Stories continue to fly the flag for women in translation this year: first off, later this month we can look forward to Rita Indiana’s second novel, Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. I’m champing at the bit for this; Indiana’s first novel Tentacle, translated by Achy Obejas, was my surprise hit of 2018, and Made in Saturn is described as “a hangover from a riotous funeral, a rapid-fire elegy for the revolutionary spirit, and a glimpse of hope for all who feel eclipsed by those who came before them” – it promises to be as electrifying as Tentacle. Later in the year we can expect the next Lina Wolff, Many People Die Like You, a “wicked, discomfiting, delightful and wry” collection of short stories (translated again by Saskia Vogel, who did a magnificent job with Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers last year), and a new-to-me Salvadoran writer, Claudia Hernández, whose novel Slash and Burn, “a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma,” is in the very capable hands of Julia Sanches.

Fans of Margarita García Robayo and Selva Almada are in for a treat, as Charco Press are bringing us their next novels! There probably isn’t a corner of the internet where I haven’t professed my love for García Robayo’s Fish Soup (2018); the follow-up is Holiday Heart, a novel about a disintegrating marriage, translated again by the very talented Charlotte Coombe. As for Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (tr. Chris Andrews) was an excellent debut (and won best first book of the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2019); Almada’s second offering Dead Girls is a journalistic novel about femicide, and the cherry on the cake is that it will be translated by Annie McDermott, whose previous work for Charco is top-notch. Charco will also be publishing the debut novel of Chilean author Andrea Jeftanovic, Theatre of War (tr. Frances Riddle), which marks Jeftanovic’s first appearance in English and Charco’s continued championing of women authors from across Latin America.

In March, Comma Press will be releasing a landmark collection in collaboration with Wom@rts and Hay Festival: Europa28 brings together 28 acclaimed women writers, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs writing about the future of Europe in a “powerful and timely anthology [that] looks at an ever-changing Europe from a variety of different perspectives and offers hope and insight into how we might begin to rebuild.” Sophie Hughes edits with Comma’s Sarah Cleave, and Europa28 features a stellar cast of writers and translators.

And speaking of Sophie Hughes, her translation of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for Fitzcarraldo Editions will be released imminently! Hurricane Season is “a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons” that, I believe, opens with the line “The Witch is dead.” Hurricane Season is one of my most anticipated books of 2020 – this time last year I mistakenly thought it was coming out in 2019, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a looooong time and I CAN’T WAIT. (*update*: I just received my copy, and the first line is not “The Witch is dead”, but it’s even better – if a book can be judged on its first page alone then I can say right now that this is AMAZING). Then in April Fitzcarraldo will be bringing us the next Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Place (translated by Alison L. Strayer, who also translated The Years) – and will be releasing it on my birthday, no less! Champagne all round.

Elsewhere, we can look forward to the next Samanta Schweblin from Oneworld: Little Eyes, translated by Megan McDowell, is “a chilling portrait of our compulsively interconnected society”, and looks set to be as spine-tingling as Schweblin’s previous work. Earthlings, Sayaka Murata’s second book, is coming in October from Granta Books: Earthlings continues with the theme of outsiders, presenting characters who believe they are not human, and is translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, who did an excellent job on Murata’s best-selling Convenience Store Woman in 2018. Les Fugitives have kicked off the year with a new novel by award-winning Mauritian author Ananda Devi, The Living Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), in which white supremacy, desperation and class conflict collide on the streets of London. My 2020 pick from Pushkin Press is Tender is the Flesh by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica: translated by Sarah Moses, this chilling-sounding dystopian novel is set in an alternative reality in which it is legal to eat human meat. Sounds horrifying, but I do love dystopian fiction so I’m going to steel myself and dive in…

In less gruesome news, here are three very different French-language books to look out for in translation this year:

Europa Editions UK will be bringing us Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers, translated by Hildegarde Serle: the daily life of a cemetery caretaker is disrupted by a clandestine tribute in the “funny, moving, intimately told story of a woman who believes obstinately in happiness,” while Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, which I enjoyed reading in French last year, is coming from Daunt Books in a translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: in this closed-down tourist town on the border between North and South Korea, a young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a dilapidated guesthouse, and is drawn into a tacit relationship with an unexpected and mysterious guest. Finally, Harvill Secker are offering a new international series of eight books in 2020, kicking it off with All About Sarah, the debut novel by Pauline Delabroy-Allard (translated by Adriana Hunter): this was a literary sensation in France last year, and is described as “an intoxicating and evocative novel about the all-consuming love affair between two women and the ruin it leaves in its wake.”

Fans of German literature will be pleased to know that V&Q Books recently founded an English-language imprint, headed by women in translation champion Katy Derbyshire, and we can expect their first three releases in September. Two of the three are by women: Lucy Fricke’s Daughters (translated by Sinead Crowe) tells the story of “two women, pushing forty, on a road trip across Europe, each of them dealing with difficult fathers along the way”; Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (translated by Derbyshire herself) is an autofictional account of “the writer’s relationship to her grandmother, a devout Swabian Catholic who refused to reveal who fathered her child in 1946.”

So that’s 20 books for 2020, with doubtless many more exciting releases to come in the course of the year. I’m already wondering whether any of these will make it onto my end-of-year top books of 2020 – in the meantime, happy reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Translation month 2019: 8 books reviewed

As many of you probably know, August is Women in Translation month, an initiative started and championed by Meytal Radzinski. In honour of this year’s Women in Translation month, here are my thoughts on the eight books I read in August.

Ece Temelkuran, Women Who Blow on Knots, translated from Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Parthian Books)

In Women Who Blow on Knots, four women escape and find their shifting fate(s) on a madcap road trip across the Middle East as the Arab Spring breaks. It’s full of action, cliffhangers and social comment, and maintains a lightheartedness while dealing with weighty issues regarding women’s roles and representations in the Middle East. The title is from a sura from the Qur’an that refers to witchcraft, and there is indeed something mystical about this story. There is something of the cinematic too: several of the implausible feats pulled off by the larger-than-life Madam Lilla felt like a film in the sense that the hows and whys of breathtaking turns of events are edited out in favour of the more watchable final result. The characterisation is what stood out for me the most: though the three younger women could easily have fallen into stereotypes or tropes of femininity, Temelkuran invested each of them with heart, fallibility, and a destiny that each must fulfil in her own way.

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, The Yogini, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press)

The latest release from Tilted Axis Press is an absolute gem: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s third novel The Yogini is a tale of fate, illusion and self-destruction, offered in a sumptuous translation by Arunava Sinha. Homi is a young woman who, on the face of it, has everything she could wish for: a high-powered and exciting job, a full life, and a passionate marriage. However, a chance encounter one day with a silent man with matted locks imperils everything she holds dear, as fate “sinks its claws into her” and prompts her to reflect on contingency, on choice, and on inevitability. Fate is the driving force of the narrative, stalking Homi and gathering in her heart “like unshed tears.” Merciless and inexorable, fate – or is it  her own will? – guides and pulls Homi through increasingly self-destructive situations, until she risks exiling herself from happiness and losing everything that ever meant anything to her. Powerful, explosive, and utterly compelling.

Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak, translated from Arabic (Palestine) by Perween Richards (Comma Press)

Regular readers will already know how much this book moved me, from my review last month. Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian author writing about life – and particularly women’s lives – unfolding on the Gaza strip. Expect a violence that has become commonplace, but also a universal experience that is utterly irresistible: Qarmout writes with warmth and compassion, never instructing but always teaching. The translation by Perween Richards revels in the richness of language to convey all of the atrocity and humanity with which Qarmout’s writing swells: these are stories of the everyday violence, restriction and terror of living in Gaza, but above all they are stories of everyday humanity. This one is not to be missed, and is one of my top recommendations of 2019.

Ursula Kovalyk, The Equestrienne, translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Parthian Books)

Set in 1984, The Equestrienne is a coming-of-age story about two misfit girls, “dangerous bitches, disruptive females who disregarded all the rules.” The girls forge their future in a riding school in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and the narrative combines the personal story of identity and survival with comments on socialism vs capitalism (“we swapped our barbed wire cage for one made of gold.”) I was a little surprised by this novella, as it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (though that’s not a bad thing): I thought it would focus on the elderly character looking back on a life narrated in flashback, but on reflection it works better as a coming-of-age story. I also very much enjoyed the collaborative translation by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood; every word is perfectly placed.

Tea Tulić, Hair Everywhere, translated from Croatian by Coral Petkovich (Istros Books)

This book was longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2018, and I’ve been meaning to read it since then. I came to it after having enjoyed a recent release by Istros Books (Singer in the Night, reviewed here), and Hair Everywhere is harrowing and challenging, but well worth the read. Tulić offers a fragmented narrative about one family coming to terms with cancer, following their daily life after the mother is diagnosed with an aggressive tumour that will ultimately kill her. By turns delicate and brutal, it’s also a story of female legacy: “While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.” As well as a reflection on loss, this is also a lyrical hymn to love and a painful testament to our failure to love enough before it’s too late.

Fleur Jaeggy, Proleterka, translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen (And Other Stories)

This is the third of Fleur Jaeggy’s novels to be published by women in translation champions And Other Stories, and in it a teenage daughter dissects her emotionless relationship with a father she barely knows. The girl and her father embark on a cruise to Greece, aboard a ship called the Proleterka: this is their “last and first chance to be together,” during which the girl experiences a violent sexual awakening and an increasing neglect of her father (some children, she reminds us, “have the gift of detachment.”) Jaeggy’s examination of relationships strikes a skilful balance between perspicacity and silence: every word seems to have been weighed before being offered, and McEwen ably renders this in the transation. An unsettling narrative that cuts like a razor.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, The Adventures of China Iron, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre (Charco Press)

I was able to get an advance copy of this forthcoming title from Charco Press at Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I can only urge you to read it as soon as it is available. This is an epic and subversive dialogue with Argentine history and literary canon: told from the perspective of China, the abandoned wife of José Hernández’s eponymous gaucho poet Martín Fierro, The Adventures of China Iron reinscribes female experience in a male-dominated context. With a luscious and rhythmic prose, Cabezón Cámara subverts and queers one of Argentina’s great literary texts in an unforgettable journey across the pampas, but also offers profound reflections on industrial progress, women’s experience, colonialism, and sexuality. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre truly entered Cabezón Cámara’s universe, and have translated the cadence and atmosphere of the text beautifully.

Tomoka Shibasaki, Spring Garden, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton (Pushkin Press)

This Japanese novella is an unhurried tale of quiet obsessions and missed opportunities that nonetheless manages to maintain suspense: divorcé Taro lives in a condemned block of flats, and meets his neighbour Nishi, who is obsessed with the sky-blue house across from their block. Little by little this obsession starts to take over Taro’s life too, as the story edges towards a conclusion overshadowed by the threat of demolition. Will Taro and Nishi uncover the secrets of the house before they have to move away? Will they allow themselves to fall in love before they are separated? An excellent translation by Polly Barton manages to convey the wistful yet tense heart of the story.

Building Bridges: Translating Women interview series 2019

In the springtime this year, I published a remarkable interview with translator Sophie Hughes. Shortly after Sophie’s interview I received a small grant to travel across the UK and turn this into a series, interviewing translators, publishers and publicists to explore the barriers facing women in translation, and the ways in which these might be broken down. Later this year I’ll be publishing the rest of the interviews here, but what strikes me most as I transcribe them is how many ideas recur – explicitly or implicitly – across the many and varied responses to my questions. So I am offering this “prelude” by setting extracts from each interview in dialogue with one another: I hope you find this as fascinating as I do, and I look forward to sharing the full interviews with you in due course.

I am very grateful to all these dynamic and talented interview participants. Their goodwill, good humour and wisdom are inspiring: every single person I approached agreed to meet with me, and gave freely of their time and their thoughts; my appreciation is matched only by their generosity.

On source cultures

SOPHIE HUGHES: “whenever [women writers] 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”

SOPHIE LEWIS: “Women do struggle to get published outside the Anglophone world; they have so many things against them. They struggle to get published, and to get published well – in big enough numbers and with a big enough marketing campaign behind them – to make an impact. So they then don’t win prizes. Everything is against them.”

BECCA PARKINSON & ZOË TURNER:  “With our Reading the City anthologies, we try to find a 50-50 split of men and women with the authors and the translators if it’s possible. It’s not always possible. There are some countries or cities where we go and we simply can’t find the women writers, sometimes because they’ve been so suppressed, or because they’re scared.”

NICKY HARMAN: “There are very many women authors in China. I don’t know whether there are more males than females. But I know who gets the prizes: it’s men who get the prizes.”

JEN CALLEJA: “There are issues in the whole infrastructure, and then in the publishing industry there still isn’t parity for women being published in English, let alone in translation. And then in reviewing culture, we know that women aren’t reviewed as much as men. So the problem is from the top to the bottom. There are obviously other issues, such as class, so for example if you translated a woman, because of the class structures in other countries you’re translating women who are predominantly upper or middle class: they get translated, but what about all the working-class authors?”

On the importance of translated literature

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “I feel that if we understand another culture, if we read its books, watch its films and so on, then we find out that we’re all very much the same. And to me that’s  important, it’s something we need in today’s world.”

JEN CALLEJA: “We push for translation into English because we need it. I mean that in an existential, soul sense; we’re starving for outside voices.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are really keen to find out about what’s going on around the world.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “All of the Charco books so far stem from an impact in the societies of origin that I hope will translate into the English-speaking society. They bring philosophical questions, universal questions that are important for all of us, whatever the language or the society. And the translators have to understand, have to have a relationship with the story, the book, the universe that they’re going to translate, that is beyond the semantics of the language.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “People will automatically go for something that they think they will relate to. And if we’re not being shown that we can relate to these works from other cultures across the world, if they’re being ‘othered’ in our narratives, then without even thinking about it people won’t pick them up.”

CÉCILE MENON: “I’m publishing books that I think will have a connection with the previous books that I’ve published. And yes, which I think are relevant to a British readership.”

On barriers

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “Translated literature already faces one hurdle, its perceived ‘foreign-ness’ which some (not all) publishers and booksellers see as a barrier to sales. Then if you throw ‘women’s’ into the mix, the hurdle doubles in height.”

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having – in translation into English in particular – to change the imbalance in attitude to books that are published in English and books published in translation. People have a kind of allergy to things foreign. And look what’s happening to our world: there are all sorts of barriers going up, but I feel I’m a barrier remover, I want people to feel they can read anything from everywhere, and not have a mindset that says ‘Oh, that’s foreign, so it’s not for me’ or ‘That’s translated, so it can’t be any good.’ Unfortunately that attitude does exist, a lot of people think like that without even being aware of it. So the more you normalise translated literature by having the translator’s name mentioned alongside the author’s, the more it simply becomes an accepted part of all literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “That duality – on one hand we’re keen to give prominence to our translators, they’re always on the cover of our books, as well as our copy editors, who are always on our back cover, but then on the other hand, we want to overcome this block from so many readers in relation to translated fiction, that they would immediately understand translated fiction as something that’s niche, difficult, too complex, and we just want to prove that that’s not the case. So it’s a balancing act, that we try to do with every book.”

NICKY HARMAN: “I think Chinese women writers all acknowledge the fact that they have less visibility … there’s certainly a dominance of men amongst writers and publishers.”

On the publishing industry

SOPHIE LEWIS: “I think publishers need to go a little bit further in the work that they do, or in the tentacles that they reach out, assuming that they do, in order to hunt down the women that they want to publish, to give them a better chance of making it over into another language.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “Small independent publishers who publish women in translation are activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “Independent publishers working with translations have an opportunity to change that balance, to re-balance as it were, and make that balance right, to bring women’s voices to be at the same level as their male counterparts.”

NICKY SMALLEY: With translation specifically, there’s a real issue of women in other countries not necessarily getting the acclaim that brings them to our attention. This is definitely not an excuse, but if those women writers in other countries are not getting the acclaim for their writing that they deserve, then they’re not going to find agents who will take them into English. So that’s a key issue. And it’s a push and pull thing, because if English-language publishers are looking for more writing by women, then you create an awareness in other countries that this is something that’s desirable.”

CÉCILE MENON: “Generally, the books that I take on are by authors who haven’t been translated into English before, have been overlooked. They were considered as too niche or not commercially viable. A prime example of that was Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz, which turned out to be one of our two best-selling titles and was selected for events at Jewish Book Week and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “Independent publishers are essential, because they can make those decisions and there’s no finance department telling them they can’t do it. And booksellers are essential as well.”

On readers and booksellers

SOPHIE HUGHES: “A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance […] 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.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “We’ve had a lot of support from small independent bookshops, but there needs to be a bigger movement from bigger companies, where they give more prominence to other regions or small publishers, because if you don’t see a book then you might not buy it. If Waterstones, for example, give prominence to a particular publisher, it can have a real impact. So we can only hope. We need to provide a more diverse array of fiction and worlds and voices for people to read – or not read, but our commitment is that they should be there.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “We need to get people over the idea that if it’s translated it’s going to be difficult. Maybe bookshops and libraries need to give us a bit of a hand in the marketing. You need a bookseller or a librarian or a reviewer to pick a book up and say ‘this is special’ and add their voice to yours. But especially as an indie, you’re going up against much bigger dogs in the industry, and then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got a lot of people fighting against you. You’re not getting your books on the Waterstones front tables, you’re not on the Amazon homepage, so how do people find you? But the audience is there, and it’s growing.”

NICKY SMALLEY: “Publishers are obviously gatekeepers to an extent, but different publishers have different degrees of power in their gatekeeping, as do booksellers. So a chain like Waterstones has the power to make or break a writer.”

On activism

JEN CALLEJA: “People are still challenging the idea that there is gender bias in literature, and so firstly there has to be an acceptance that it exists. You have people who are consciously opting into publishing women, making those kind of changes, but it has to be a long-term thing. So it might be that for the next year or two people make a big thing of publishing women to push it forward. But people are so reactionary against that kind of positive discrimination without really acknowledging what comes before it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a historical context. So it’s about making some real choices about women in translation, making an effort to work with women translators, using that as a consultancy basis to find more women.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “If more festivals invited over authors who aren’t from the UK and fought those visa battles, there wouldn’t be a news story about visas getting turned down. That shouldn’t be news, it shouldn’t be happening in the UK, but this insular atmosphere at the moment is focusing on British authors. It’s just so wrong and the opposite of what we should be doing.”

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “The more we talk about books by women or translated by women, the more mainstream this thinking becomes. And more normalised, less ‘niche’. Women are not niche. But women’s writing is perceived as such.”

SOPHIE HUGHES: “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”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “What we can do about it is that as translators, we need to seek out those books and take them to publishers. It’s as simple as that. Publishers are busy people, they get bombarded the whole time from every foreign publisher on the planet sending them books for consideration. And the only way we can change things is by actually seeking out really brilliant books and taking them to publishers. And that does happen, and it is happening.”

To be continued…

With thanks to:

Jen Calleja, translator from German
Charlotte Coombe, translator from Spanish
Nicky Harman, translator from Chinese
Sophie Hughes, translator from Spanish
Sophie Lewis, translator from French and Portuguese; co-founder of Shadow Heroes
Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish
Cécile Menon, director of Les Fugitives
Carolina Orloff, co-director of Charco Press
Becca Parkinson, engagement manager at Comma Press and Zoë Turner, publicity and outreach officer at Comma Press
Nicci Praça, formerly publicist for Fitzcarraldo Editions; manager of Amnesty Kentish Town bookstore
Ros Schwartz, translator from French
Nicky Smalley, publicist for 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.

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.

Stories of intimacy and alienation: Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise

Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s no secret that I’ve been excited about Thirteen Months of Sunrise, the first major translation into English of a Sudanese woman writer. Rania Mamoun’s writing has a cultural specificity that offered me a window into a culture I know shamefully little about, but the themes in her short stories are universal: the collection is urgent, thoughtful, and occasionally surreal, reflecting on themes ranging from love, contingency, and broken promises to despair, religion, alienation and corruption. I don’t believe that authors should be yoked to a moral imperative of having to “represent” or “speak for” their country or culture in their writing, and though Thirteen Months of Sunrise is described in the press release as “a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan”, it is also a rich, complex and moving portrait of humanity. Indeed, there is so much in here that pushes us to rethink lazy neo-colonial stereotypes: for example, although ‘In the Muck of the Soul’ presents a woman whose poverty and fate might seem to conform to clichéd expectations, the story is presented as though through a video camera, a pseudo-documentary that gently reminds us that what we think we know about Sudan is nonetheless always edited: “Tears tumble from her eyes. The camera pans down to a fallen tear, the focus sharpens and it fills the screen.”

Image from commapress.co.uk

The translation by Elisabeth Jaquette is very accomplished; Jaquette also translated another book I enjoyed recently (The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, a Kafka-esque nightmare set in Egypt), and so I already knew that she was an excellent translator. She brings the same sensitivity to Thirteen Months of Sunrise, and there are echoes of the bureaucracy that haunts The Queue in ‘In the Muck of the Soul’. But Mamoun is also playful, and Jaquette communicates that equally well: Mamoun shows a wicked sense of humour in ‘Stray Steps’, with pithy comments about family relationships that made me laugh out loud (“What was the point of going home, where there was nothing but tap water and my mother, who I only like sometimes when I have all my wits about me, and she only half her wits, maybe even a quarter. They disappear and reappear at random, only she knows when they’ll be there or not.”/ “My uncle works as a driver for a taxi company, but he also has a job as a first class drunk, so what he does with his salary won’t help me.”) ‘Stray Steps’ brings together the tragic and the humorous, the real and the imagined that co-exist in Mamoun’s stories, leading us to a surreal conclusion but always foregrounding the most recognisable of human emotions.

In the short stories we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. The bonds Mamoun explores range from desire, friendship, sexual attraction and family love to connections rooted in a place, a history, or a shared sense of belonging, as in the relationship between a Sudanese woman and an Ethiopian man in the title story (incidentally, I shan’t spoil the meaning of the title by telling you what the ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ refers to; you can save that enjoyment for your own reading!):

“He found in me someone who understood him, and I found in him a window into Ethiopia, and oh how I loved it. […] The Blue Nile, which passes through Khartoum, originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. That’s what makes our bond so strong, I thought: we were nursed from the same source.”

The Blue Nile is also beautifully depicted on the cover of the book, highlighting the importance of origins to this collection; there may be no obligation for Mamoun to educate us about contemporary Sudan, but this does not mean that her stories lack roots. The two I enjoyed most were a painful one about poverty, and a passionate one about love. In ‘One-room Sorrows’, a mother cannot feed her children, and we see her misery in the face of their hunger: “‘Mama, me hungry,’ says the little boy of four, begging his mother. She looks at him, her heart so torn to shreds by hunger, sadness, pain and defeat.” You might think that this is the clichéd representation of Sudan I was trying to step away from earlier, but it’s so much more than a reductive view of poverty – it is a tale of relationships and responsibilities and survival, and ends with a line that takes a social problem and shows its most personal side: “‘Mum, are you gonna eat us when you get hungry?’ asks the boy of four, and she smiles, tells him no, hugs him, and sadly considers his need to ask.”

These intimate portrayals of people at the edges of life, society and reason are where Mamoun excels: my other favourite story, ‘Edges’, exposes passion and desire, and plays with madness. The narrator describes waiting for love in an intensely poetic way: “I had waited for him so many years. For him to come mend my cracks and fissures. He came to dismantle, disperse, and then assemble me, to rearrange my parts and pieces, to shape me anew.” The protagonist is, however, deemed to be mad, her all-consuming passions considered a negative loss of control of the senses. But Mamoun reclaims these passions, casting in a positive light the memories of a great love that is both rooted in a time and place and collectively human:

“I remember the evening the damp sandbar lay between us and the Blue Nile, when he reached out and said, ‘Give me your hand.’
I lived a lifetime in the space and time between when I lifted my hand – it moved through the air, reached its apex, began its descent – and when it settled in his palm. I experienced a whole lifetime, parallel to my own, in those moments.”

Mamoun writes with a sparse clarity, eschewing melodrama: if her narrator here lives a lifetime in a moment, so Mamoun herself writes a life in just a few pages. She displays great gentleness towards her characters – the diabetic woman dragging herself along the road and encountering an unlikely saviour, the woman on a bus who feels a wave of compassion towards a pair of flies, the beggar woman who sits at the foot of the mosque’s east wall, “a black mass gathered in the dark”, who even the dogs were afraid of – and offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable.

Review copy of 13 Months of Sunrise provided by Comma Press. Released in the UK on 9 May 2019; available to pre-order here.

For more by Rania Mamoun, read The Book of Khartoum or Banthology, both also published by Comma Press.