Tag Archives: Elisabeth Jaquette

Women in Translation month 2021: a belated round-up

August has come and gone, and with it another Women in Translation month. Instigated by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to encourage more people to read women’s writing in translation, Women in Translation month has grown in both reach and momentum each year (and now has a brand new website!) I always enjoy looking through the #WiTMonth hashtag on social media, but this year I participated much less actively (or perhaps I should say much less visibly) as I haven’t had time to record publicly the things I’ve been reading. So here I am well into September, writing (a little belatedly, a little shamefacedly) about what I read in August…

At the start of August I was reading The Frightened Ones by Syrian author Dima Wannous, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. This was sent to me by Harvill Secker over 18 months ago, and I had intended to read it in August *last year*. For an entirely inexplicable reason (possibly the guilt of leaving it languishing on my shelf for so long?) I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy this book, but I was very wrong indeed. The Frightened Ones is a carnal, horrifying account of hunting love and fleeing fear as conflict rages in Damascus: Suleima meets a mysterious writer in her therapist’s waiting room, and they fall into an intense yet brittle affair. The writer, Naseem, later sends Suleima a copy of his manuscript, narrated by a woman whose life is disturbingly similar to Suleima’s own. The narrative switches between Suleima and the narrator of Naseem’s book, until both stories collapse into one another and Suleima can barely tell the difference between the two. The Frightened Ones is experimental in form but grounded in a horrifying reality in which “one aching version of humankind” lives, dies and endures.

 

My next book was Suiza by Belgian debut writer Bénédicte Belpois, translated from French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions). The narrative perspective is that of Tomás, a terminally ill and rather unreconstructed (okay, misogynist) Galician man, who “rescues” illiterate waitress Suiza from her abusive employer by punching said employer and dragging Suiza off with him. After some pretty aggressive sex, Tomás takes Suiza home and “keeps” her. The two do fall in love, and Tomás does come to realise that their relationship shouldn’t be about ownership, but nonetheless it was a bit disappointing to read so much of Suiza’s story from his perspective. When Suiza herself does speak, there are hints of a backstory that I would have loved to see developed further, and in particular I would have liked to understand why Suiza was so happy to renounce her agency and rely entirely on Tomás and his (questionably motivated) benevolence. While there is plenty to enjoy in the story itself, which is very immersive and kept me wanting to read on to find out what would happen next, the ending slipped back into the power dynamic that I found frustrating; I think I’d have clicked better with Suiza if it had been Suiza herself narrating.

 

My main holiday read was The Pear Tree by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press). This is only the second novel I’ve read from Georgia (the first was The Eighth Life, which long-term readers might remember I loved deeply), and if these two are representative of contemporary Georgian literature then I don’t know why we’re not seeing more of it. Lela has been raised in a “school for idiots” on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and has survived systematic abuse by one of the teachers by channelling her energy into planning her revenge. Now old enough to leave the school but offered a job there as warden, Lela takes under her wing some of the more defenceless children so that they do not have to endure the same experiences she did. When an American couple want to adopt a Georgian orphan, she sees the opportunity to give abandoned boy Irakli a new life, and so two tense and intertwined narratives develop together as Lela and Irakli edge closer to their respective futures and freedoms.

And to bring August to a close (this is going to be a bit of a teaser as to what you can expect in my next couple of reviews) I had a Parisian double whammy with Lauren Elkin’s Notes on a Parisian Commute (released by Les Fugitives this week) and Ketty Rouf’s No Touching (translated by Tina Kover and coming soon from Europa Editions) – I’ll be back talk to you about those soon!

 

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.