Tag Archives: women in translation

Review: The Jeweller, Caryl Lewis

Translated from Welsh by Gwen Davies, Honno Press (2019)

When I received The Jeweller, I was shocked to realise it’s the first book I’ve ever read translated from Welsh. I’ve read books by Welsh authors written in English (most recently, the wonderful Pigeon by Alys Conran, published by Parthian Books), but never anything originally written in Welsh. So this was a first for me – but what a first. If, like me, you’ve never read a book translated from Welsh before, I can only urge you to start with this one. Published by Welsh women’s press Honno, this is a haunting story of death, bonds, the objects we carry with us and those we leave behind. It features a cast of believable, perfectly observed characters, a dexterous plotline with multiple sub-plots and several twists, and is written in a gorgeous near-Gothic prose.

“That was the horror of love: your sweetheart could stick a knife into your eyeball and sharpen it a notch every chance they got.”

Mari is the jeweller of the title: she has a stall in the market of a small coastal town where she sells second-hand jewellery, pieces bought at auction or finding their way to her by other means, and which “after years of being longed for, loved and flaunted by other owners, … shared Mari’s company for a while before finding a new home.” The jewels are not just cast-off trinkets, but have a life of their own as they pass from one owner to the next; similarly, Mari is not simply an eccentric hawker, but has a secret hidden away in “the shroud of a sheet that kept it clear of cold and dust”: little by little, in the privacy of her home, Mari is working on an uncut emerald, “a chip of grave-cloth green” with which she feels an intimate connection, and which offers a superb subtext. At the heart of the emerald is a unique feature that could be the key to its brilliance, but the work needed to bring it to the surface must be carried out delicately and expertly: one false move and it could shatter and be irreparably ruined. This is a subtle metaphor for Mari’s own life, which is revealed to us little by little in the course of the narrative, layers of brittle carapace slowly chipped away until the aching heart is exposed. It could, however, also stand as a metaphor for the book itself, which manages to be both tense and languorous, its sudden bursts of raw beauty mirroring Mari’s intermittent urges to work furiously on the emerald, and its drawing back at the moments of greatest drama echoing the way in which Mari wraps up the emerald and hides it away, leaving it to throb gently just at the edges of her awareness. The writing in the translation is superb: like Mari’s handling of the emerald, aware that “nothing should obscure the light’s journey through the gemstone”, Davies allows nothing to obscure the opalescent beauty of Lewis’s prose:

“But we shouldn’t be afraid of beauty, should we?
Since possessing the stone, Mari had struggled to admire it without wanting to cut it. To open in it just the smallest window. But yes, of course such gorgeous gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.”

Mari is a private, taciturn character, and it is a feat of both Lewis’s storytelling and Davies’s translation that we are allowed such intimacy with her. We learn of the strained relationship with her father, the local reverend, full of divine love for others but brutal to Mari: “He had been her life. He’d tried diverting her ardour to loftier heroes. But an ordinary father’s love would have been enough. He’d been kind to so many people, impatient with others, even cruel to a few. He was only a man, after all.” The confidence and compassion to which we are invited is aided by the excellent supporting cast, whose relationship to Mari crystallises slowly as the story progresses. We meet her fellow market workers, and follow their routines and relationships as this small community faces the closure of the market, their slow life overtaken by industrialisation. As well as the human characters, we also encounter Mari’s pet monkey, Nanw, who lives in a cage in Mari’s bedroom but whose backstory is unclear. The only part of the narrative that I was strangely unmoved by, though, was a key moment between Mari and Nanw in the roiling sea that had been lapping at the edges of the story throughout; I struggled to get beyond a fairly basic interpretation of Nanw as a surrogate family member, and would be interested to know how others have read this relationship.

As well as her stall at the market, Mari intermittently earns money helping her friend Mo to clear out the houses of people who have died with no next of kin to take care of their belongings. From each house Mari rescues a photograph which she frames and displays on her mantelpiece, rescuing from loneliness and obscurity people she never encountered in life, and surrounding herself with the lives of the dead. This is no quirky macabre obsession: Mari is searching for something, and when the revelation of what this was came, I was completely blindsided: it was a stroke of brilliance, and of wonderful storytelling. Often the phrase “it took my breath away” is an overstatement, but not in this case. You’ll know by now that I don’t do spoilers, so no more on that – but I highly recommend that you read and experience it for yourself.

Review copy of The Jeweller provided by Honno Press

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Building Bridges interview series: Nicky Smalley, And Other Stories

Nicky Smalley is publicist at the pioneering independent publishing house And Other Stories, who champion translated literature and who publicly took up Kamila Shamsie’s “provocation” to the publishing industry to make 2018 a Year of Publishing Women.

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

Yes, there was research released by Nielsen that had been commissioned by the Booker foundation, showing that the percentage of books translated into English had grown to around 5%, and that in terms of literary fiction, translated literary fiction was selling better than non-translated literary fiction. And that is really noticeable in terms of the way that bookshops are responding: independent bookshops in particular are looking for interesting things in translation to sell. 5% is still a very small number, but it’s progress in the right direction.

So do you see booksellers as major gatekeepers then? I always assumed that publishers were the main gatekeepers…

Publishers are obviously gatekeepers to an extent, but different publishers have different degrees of power in their gatekeeping, as do booksellers. A chain like Waterstones has the power to make or break a writer. And although Foyles is no longer an independent bookshop, they played a major role in putting books like Convenience Store Woman and The Vegetarian into people’s hands. If something shows signs of selling well, booksellers will run with it. Independent bookshops can have significant influence: a key part of their role is to develop a relationship with their community, and if they are prioritising a certain kind of book, they’re doing that because they know that the community around them is interested in that. There are certain booksellers that we work with as much as possible because we know that they understand our books, and that their buyers understand our books and understand why they’re being sold in that bookshop: one of the most important things about bookshops is that they provide a context.

What about the books that you choose at And Other Stories; you publish a lot of translated literature – do you have a set quota of translated works?

We would never not publish something because it didn’t fit in with the statistics of what we publish. Generally each year we publish around 70% translated literature and 30% English-language. That varies from year to year depending on what we like, but it is important to us that we have a mix. It would be unlikely that we’d have a year without publishing some English-language writing. We don’t want to be pigeonholed, and we don’t want translated literature to be pigeonholed as a genre: by publishing both translated and non-translated writing, it means that the translated writers that we publish occupy the same space as the non-translated English-language writers, and that’s important to us.

Let’s talk about The Remainder; can you tell me more about its journey from commission to publication to Man Booker International shortlistee?

The Remainder, as far as I understand it, was sent to us by (author) Alia Trabucco Zerán’s agent Laurence Laluyaux at RCW. Laurence is an amazing agent and she works very hard with her authors; she’s very focused on developing their careers and supporting them through the publishing process, and she regularly sends us things that she thinks might work for us. Then we talked to (translator) Sophie Hughes at the London Book Fair and she had written a sample; the pairing of Alia and Sophie was there from the beginning.

Was it specifically for the Year of Publishing Women that you took on The Remainder, or was it just well-timed?

We would have published it anyway, but when we acquired it we knew it would work well in the Year of Publishing Women because it’s such a strong book. Alia was very enthusiastic about the concept of the Year of Publishing Women, so it was a natural fit.

There are beginnings of a move away from eurocentrism in translated literature, and your catalogue last year had quite a lot of titles from Latin America. Is this a deliberate trend, and something you aim to foster?

We’ve always published a lot of Latin American literature; over the first few years that And Other Stories existed we published a lot of Latin American men, and when we decided to do the Year of Publishing Women, one of the things we set out to do was to find Latin American women writers. We have also focused on trying to diversify the countries within Latin America. There’s Alia from Chile, Mario Levrero from Uruguay, we’ve got a Columbian writer, Cristina Hernandez, coming out next year translated by Julia Sanches, and there’s Rita Indiana who’s Dominican, and we’re always interested in Mexican writers because they have such a rich literary heritage. And we’re constantly looking for writers outside of European languages: a lot of the books we publish might not be from Europe, but they’re from European languages, and so we’ve been keen to look at more Asian and African writers. For the Year of Publishing Women we looked for African women writers in translation from non-European languages, though we didn’t come across anything that worked for us. The move outside of Europe is important, but part of the challenge of it is that a lot of European countries have funding schemes for translated literature, and unless you’re publishing commercial literature it’s very difficult to fund translation, and the funding isn’t that widely available in the UK. There’s the PEN Translates scheme, which is fabulous, and they’re very keen to incorporate diversity in what they fund. Perhaps that has had an impact on the kind of things that people are looking for, because if there’s an awareness that people are looking to fund non-European writing, then publishers might be more likely to seek it out. One of the ways Eurocentrism could be overcome is if there were more sources of funding to fund translation specifically from non-European countries. Hopefully the debates about diversity over the past few years have opened peoples’ eyes to the need to hear other voices and to enable other voices to be heard.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and what do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

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 it’s something that most publishers – maybe us slightly less because we take a lot of submissions from translators and we are in touch with a lot of translators who tell us about things they’re excited about – but for larger publishers who work more on an agent basis, 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. But there is still a problem with women’s work not being taken seriously enough, and that’s not something that’s going to change in a couple of years. What interests me is that you get these initiatives started, and we’ll talk about it a lot for a couple of years, and then it blows over and everything goes back to normal.

How has the Year of Publishing Women had a lasting impact for And Other Stories and, hopefully, more generally?

I’m not certain what impact the Year of Publishing Women had on our sales; often sales totals are more dependent on a particular title doing well rather than our titles doing well across the board. Certain titles from last year did really well, and may not have done so well if it hadn’t been for the Year of Publishing Women. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, for example, sold almost 4000 copies; a lot of people bought it because it was a very timely exploration of queer identities and environmental issues. I’m pretty sure we would have published that book anyway, but it’s possible it wouldn’t have come to our attention without the Year of Publishing Women: we asked Yuri Herrera if he could recommend any Latin American women, and he told us we had to publish Rita Indiana. And if we hadn’t been doing the Year of Publishing Women, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have asked him. So that’s one way it’s had a positive impact. It would have been great if everyone had rushed out and bought our books all year, but we did see a spike in subscriptions and a lot more direct sales; we did a few things like bundles of Year of Publishing Women books that sold quite well. So I can tentatively say that in terms of sales it had a positive impact. But in more general terms, the proportion of women being published is increasing; people are putting more attention into their acquisitions to try and balance things. And I’m not saying that was necessarily our achievement at And Other Stories, but we raised awareness of it and started a conversation about it.

Shards of memory: Colette Fellous, This Tilting World

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The latest release from Les Fugitives is a work by French-Tunisian author Colette Fellous, offered in an elegant and articulate translation by Sophie Lewis. In This Tilting World, Fellous explores different dimensions of grief and loss: the sudden death of a friend, the terror attack on the beach at Sousse in 2015, and the exile from a home(land) that both is and is not hers. This is an intimate farewell to parts of Fellous’ life that she loved and can never fully possess or experience again: the recent loss prompts her to reflect on her relationship with her deceased father, and to write a fragmentary novel, a “nocturne” that pays tribute to people she loved, people she never knew, a country that she can never truly leave behind, and a figurative home in literature.

In This Tilting World Fellous draws together her father’s life during the twentieth century, the Tunisia of her childhood, and the changed world of the twenty-first century with its institutionalisation of terror and fear, describing the project within its own pages as an attempt to “tell the story of a father born and dead in the twentieth century, and the story of this world now, this Tunisian village I shall have to leave behind, in this year 2015, a terrifying year, remorseless, in its new, 21st-century colours.” The fragments of text move between past and present, but also beyond rigid notions of time as Fellous blends events and memories from different periods into one narrative experience. She layers terror attacks so that their impact is felt simultaneously, imagines her father as both a deceased adult who has left her adrift and a newborn child who she must protect, and unites her personal experience with a collective or universal one: “my novel is damaged, the world is damaged, I too am deeply wounded.” If her homeland is ravaged so too is she, as her country and her generation witness the birth of “a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even in our own bodies.”

The embodiment of terror – encompassing both fear and exile – is echoed in several of the fragments. Fellous describes the terrorist at Sousse as having killed people “on my beach, our beach, on every beach”, showing a universality of experience (“every beach”) and a collective suffering (“our beach”) alongside her personal grief and loss (“my beach”). Though Fellous recognises that she is privileged to be able to give voice to this experience, she also expresses a desire for individuality (“I don’t want to join any group, I want to see life with my own eyes, I want to be free”) and a yearning for selfhood alongside her reflections on writing, on creativity, and on the ways in which pain can inspire art. This longed-for freedom from prescribed views or distinct communities also represents a freedom from past silence: Fellous attempts to understand her father, and in particular to understand the silence that he transmitted to his children. She acknowledges that with this silence he had hoped to protect them from knowledge of his own suffering, rooted in its historical time of “betrayal, brutality … the camps”, but ultimately the father’s silence imprisons his children in a false innocence, a not-knowing that Fellous seeks to redress through her writing. Her father’s fractured, multi-cultural past is intertwined with historical experiences of colonisation and exile, which represent “the rupture that he’d tried to minimise”: this rupture is woven into the substance of her prose, which is itself always fragmented. Indeed the original title, Pièces détachées, indicates this fragmentation with the rupture between generations, cultures and languages reflected in the ruptures between each shard of text.

Sophie Lewis translates with sensitivity and a depth of understanding of the intricacies of Fellous’ writing: literary references abound but are never heavy-handed; the family experience is understood through references ranging from 19th-century novelist Flaubert to Alain Renais’ holocaust film Night and Fog and many others in between; nouns and adjectives are coupled carefully to convey the wistful heart of the narrative (such as “entwined bodies” or even the title, “this tilting world”, echoed in the text) and the syntax is deliberately poetic (“the wrinkles were become a kind of writing”, “always I stumble at this love”). This book is worth reading for the translation alone: there is a richness and range to Lewis’s vocabulary; the breadth of lexis is stunning, and shows an alertness to the possibilities of language (for example, choosing “I guarded Alain’s smile inside me” over the more obvious equivalent “I kept Alain’s smile inside me”). Above all, Lewis conveys the intimacy of a work that Fellous confesses is at the limits of what she can bear. Fellous claims to be writing so as not to forget her father, to offer him something long promised, and to give him a fitting farewell. Yet it is also a farewell to the country that she means to leave and yet to which she knows she will “always be returning”: she is perpetually drawn back to Tunisia “to see, to reassess, in order more easily to disengage”. This Tilting World is an evocative, candid and deeply moving account of a life lived between histories, worlds and languages, of times gone by, of present horrors and of fears for the future, but above all it is a monument to memory in all its forms: recollection, recognition, and remembrance.

Colette Fellous and Sophie Lewis will be in conversation with Michèle Roberts to launch This Tilting World at Daunt Books Hampstead (London, UK) on Wednesday 18 September; tickets available here.

Review copy of This Tilting World provided by Les Fugitives

Humanity in the face of atrocity: Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak

Translated from Arabic by Perween Richards (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s fair to say that The Sea Cloak is one of my most anticipated books… ever. Comma Press first started advertising it last Spring: author Nayrouz Qarmout was to appear at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2018, but her visa application was turned down twice by the Home Office. She just made it in time after the festival intervened on her behalf, and was then invited back this year to take part in a panel on migration and refugees – so publication was postponed in order to launch The Sea Cloak during Qarmout’s visit to the UK. So I’ve been looking forward to this book for over a year, and I can tell you that it was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% worth the wait.

Qarmout was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and was “returned” to her home in Gaza in 1992, making her a refugee for a second time, but this time in her own country. The Sea Cloak offers insight into life in Gaza, but without melodrama or exaggeration – for Qarmout, this is simply her home, her life, her political context that she is observing. Her background in journalism shows through in her writing: there is nothing partisan here, nothing that tells her reader to think or react in a particular way. Perhaps this is also an effect of her being an “outsider” even in her own country: rather than instructing, she lays out fragments and stories from her context, and offers them for interpretation. There are aspects that hint at autobiography or personal experience (for example, the female protagonists of both ‘The Long Braid’ and ‘A Samarland Moon’ are journalists, the protagonist of ‘The Sea Cloak’ “retreated into the past, to a sprawling camp buzzing with children playing marbles and forming teams for a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’”, and the bombing of a building in ‘Our Milk’ echoes an experience Qarmout describes as being intimately connected to her writing – she forced herself to write one story for every floor that was rebuilt), but the rich tapestry of everyday people presented in The Sea Cloak defies any narrow interpretation of the text as being the experience of only one person – the rhetorical question in ‘14 June’, “How many times has she jumped out of bed thinking that a bullet has punctured her window?” may very well be Qarmout’s own experience, but it is also doubtless the experience of anyone who lives in a warzone. Fictional characters live through real events, such as in this depiction of a restaurant bombing: “The waiter staggers for a moment, still standing in the rear half of the restaurant that hasn’t collapsed. His face gushes with blood – some invisible piece of shrapnel has sliced his cheek – but he barely notices it. All he can do is stare at the splashes of colour that fringe the rubble: strips of tapestry and flesh, both heavy with history.”

Not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Many of the short stories have women’s experience at the fore: in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl struggles with the transition to womanhood and the restrictions that this forces on her; in ‘The Mirror’ there is the memory of a sexual assault; in ‘The Long Braid’ a schoolgirl is told by her teacher that emancipated women are “sluts”; in ‘Breastfeeding’ a mother and father want something better for their daughter than becoming “entangled in the traditions that they themselves were raised with and could never escape”, only to discover that all options lead to restriction. Life is too often decided for these women, but in many cases other women uphold this patriarchal society. Yet Qarmout’s characters try not to be, or not to remain, victims. These are not stories of misfortune but of life, and the strength of The Sea Cloak comes from not having one definable agenda, but rather a collective one: destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion (read ‘White Lilies’ in particular), showing us that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

As for the language and the translation, both are excellent. Qarmout’s writing has a wisdom and clarity, and a richness of expression that is both exciting and compelling. Perween Richards translated all but the title story of the collection (which was translated by Charis Bredin), and she conveys this richness superbly, bringing the text to a recognisable place without ever being untrue to its origins: the translation is careful and precise, yet not overworked. Richards was one of two winners of the Translate at City translation competition in 2016, and as far as I know this is her first major translation – and what a debut it is. This collaboration is a shining example of the best of connections: between people, places, cultures and contexts. The narratives might be shocking in their everyday candour and the lack of melodrama to describe the atrocities that have become commonplace, but there are nonetheless universal messages such as this one from ‘Breastfeeding’: “We all have to grasp at the chances we can in this life.”

This juxtaposition of extraordinary situations and ordinary lives is one of the most striking features of the collection: as Richards notes of Gazan life, “Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.” If there is everyday violence, there is also everyday experience – there is a new take on forbidden love in ‘The Anklet of Maioumas’, in which a girl and boy from opposite sides of the border hope to be together; in ‘A Samarland Moon’ two young people who have drifted apart – one towards religion, the other towards emancipation – try to remember what they loved about one another, and young boys work to advance in life in ‘Pen and Notebook’. There is no preaching or overly didactic comment – Qarmout’s characters go about their lives, and their lives just happen to unfold in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. I learnt a lot from reading The Sea Cloak, yet I didn’t feel “instructed” – I think this is a necessary book. We need this book in the west. We need to know, we need not to read only books in which we recognise ourselves. One character in ‘Black Grapes’ asks “When are they going to understand?” – this is the challenge laid down gently by Qarmout. Terror, violence and death abound, yet if there is one thing that truly defines this collection, it is humanity, and that is the connection that rises above all others. As Qarmout stated in her recent appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Suffering in revolution is a collective experience. I rebel. Then we exist. I believe creation is a revolution. Palestinian identity needs this revolution.” The Sea Cloak is indeed a quiet revolution, and I urge you to be part of it by reading and sharing these stories.

 

Exquisite self-portraits in a digital age: Sylvie Weil, Selfies

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Selfies is a thoughtful take on a modern obsession: in it, Sylvie 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, which she describes before giving us a glimpse of its importance in her life.  This creates an intimacy and familiarity, explaining the detail not only of the photograph itself, but also of all the concomitant personal memories and anecdotes that the image evokes for the storyteller.

The subjects of the selfies range from milestones in Weil’s life to recollections of incidents that might seem more minor, but they all have in common a quick wit, a keen sense of irony, and an immense capacity for compassion. A heady love affair comes to an end with a big decision and a faint hint of regret for a life imagined that will never now be lived (“I’ll watch the dawn break over the red bricks of Harlem. I’ll fasten my suitcase and put water in the kettle to boil. I’ll hastily drink a cup of Nescafé, sparing a brief thought for the students for whom I’ll never pour tea”); Weil’s feelings of irritation towards a pair of American friends surface when they make a selfish decision about their pet (“When you take a dog to the vet to have him put down because he’s guilty of swallowing a plastic duck, he’s obviously got no chance of making it”); the joy of friendship is explained with the brief yet poignant comment that “she gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging.” These incidents are connected to more significant revelations about Weil’s life: her need to belong and her passionate attachments belie hints of tragedy elsewhere in the snapshots. In ‘Self-portrait as a Visitor’ we find out that Weil’s Jewish family fled France in 1941 to escape persecution, and learn that Weil’s mother, despite coming from a distinguished family, is always haunted by the “refugee” tableau and passes on to her daughters “nostalgia for a childhood that was not ours.” Later, ‘Stabat mater’ deals with Weil’s son’s mental illness, and ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’ reports his disfigurement after a hate crime: the son recurs repeatedly in Weil’s tableaux, exposing Weil’s helplessness as a mother who cannot protect her child from history, from the present, or from other people (perhaps most piercingly evident in ‘Self-portrait with portrait of my son’).

Ros Schwartz conveys all the atmospheric melancholy in her beautifully measured translation, eschewing superfluous detail and offering the fragments of Weil’s life as just that – never a complete picture, but a series of connected representations. Often when reading translations of languages I know, I imagine the translator grappling with a particular choice of phrase, and sometimes wonder why this one was chosen over another. With Schwartz, every time I start to think “I wonder whether X would have worked”, I have the impression she already thought about that, weighed it up, and discarded it in favour of what I’m reading on the page. There is a carefulness to her work, a commitment to elegance and timbre: for example, in a couple of instances, a past participle starts the sentence (“Erased, the photo I wish I could have shown”; “Forgotten, the selfie with the bear”) – these sentences are not typical of English syntax, yet starting them with a subject (think “the selfie with the bear was forgotten”) would lose both the emphasis and the poetry. Schwartz’s rendering is more controlled and evocative, and you know straight away that it’s a choice, not a calque.

The vignettes offer intimate insights into Weil’s personal life but are never self-indulgent, and Weil also weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of life: in ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ she shows how a longed-for friendship can turn on a seemingly innocuous comment, and in ‘Self-portrait as an author’ demonstrates how even a celebrated writer can feel humiliated, always dependent on people buying the books and being polite. Perhaps my favourite example of these reflections is the one Weil makes on selfies themselves, noting that “Everyone takes selfies, it’s a way of going unnoticed.” In the act of taking a selfie, what Weil is photographing goes unnoticed because people think it’s “just” a selfie like the millions of others. But Weil is using this 21st-century obsession in order to do something far more important: she is capturing a moment or an observation, or creating a longed-for memory. She is not just a tourist taking a clichéd snapshot, or a mildly hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with snapping photos of “three scrawny roses with crumpled petals”, a cloud formation, or a family gathering, and yet this is how she wants to appear so that no-one notices her true objective, or realises what she is really capturing with her camera.

With her present-day observations, Weil reaches back to the past: to the women in the self-portraits, to her mother, and to generations of her family who have gone before. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic, with her acknowledgement that “the past is real and alive.” Unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Crossing over from the visual to the verbal, this book is everything that selfies should be: it is not posed or contrived, not about looking her best or showing an over-the-top perfect life. Rather, it is vulnerable, sensitive, beautifully crafted and exquisitely displayed.

Sylvie Weil and Ros Schwartz will be in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson at the Institut Français in London TONIGHT (Monday 17 June) for the official launch of Selfies: book a ticket here.

Review copy of Selfies provided by Les Fugitives; pre-order your copy here.

 

The human side of a humanitarian crisis: Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Oneworld, 2019)

City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a soaring, searing representation of the Syrian refugee crisis, following the lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising. Above all, it is a superb story; Grjasnowa’s stark, gripping prose is translated with clarity and compassion by Derbyshire, making this an engaging and deeply moving read. What sets City of Jasmine apart from other European texts focusing on refugees (such as Jenny Erpenbeck’s admittedly marvellous Go Went Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books) is that Grjasnowa’s novel is not about refugees as broken individuals arriving in Europe, but as people with lives that are being torn apart, leaving them with no option but to flee. This shift in perspective challenges western readers to step outside the ways in which we receive and perceive the political situation, and to consider the human dimension of this humanitarian crisis.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

City of Jasmine is a brave indictment of the Syrian regime, and follows the entangled lives of Amal, Hammoudi and Youssef as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. Grjasnowa’s husband is Syrian, and on her UK book tour she commented that her desire to better understand the situation in his homeland was a motivation for writing City of Jasmine. It does not pretend to be a Syrian book: this is a European book, written for a European audience, with subtle explanatory details that would not be necessary for a Syrian readership. These are carefully rendered by Derbyshire in the translation: there is no information overload, no didactic or “educational” prose, but rather the detail is full and informative without being conspicuous or heavy-handed. I don’t usually go in for lengthy quotations, but this one, from towards the start of the story, is worth reading and exemplifies what I mean about the clarity, subtle detail, and lyricism of the prose:

“People were sick and tired. Amal was tired, her brother was tired, her friends, her fellow students, acquaintances, strangers in the streets, the entire vulgar bohème was sick and tired. They were sick and tired of the corruption, the secret services’ arbitrary decisions, their own powerlessness and permanent humiliation. They were sick and tired of all public libraries, airports, stadiums, universities, parks and even kindergartens being named after the Assads. They were sick and tired of their fathers, brothers and uncles mouldering in jails. They were sick and tired of the whole family having to chip in to buy the sons out of military service while the North American teenagers on cable TV were given cars by their parents and travelled the world. They were sick and tired of reciting ‘Assad for all eternity’ every morning at school and swearing to fight all Americans, Zionists and imperialists. They were sick and tired of memorizing Assad quotes in political-education classes and then filling in the gaps in the right order for their tests. They were sick and tired of being taught in military education to dismantle and reassemble a machine gun. They were sick and tired of being treated like animals. And above all they were sick and tired of not being allowed to say any of it out loud.”

The Syria depicted in City of Jasmine is a country in the grip of the secret services, where women and dissidents are silenced (“She’s full of unsaid words and she knows she’ll never speak them, not as long as Bashar al-Assad and his accursed family are in power”), where propaganda is the only news and no-one offers aid (“The state TV stations repeat the tale of alleged terrorists and show images of martyrs who died for Assad’s glory. The West does nothing, still nothing”). It is a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent, not to think we know about something just because we have seen a version of it on the news.

Grjasnowa’s subjects are neither downtrodden nor disadvantaged; their lives when we meet them are far removed from western depictions of refugees. Amal is from a wealthy family and works as an actress, but opposing the state makes everyone equal in persecution (though her father’s money and contacts ensure that she is released when detained), and indeed Grjasnowa sheds light on the status of those who make it beyond their own borders: “It’s the middle classes escaping; the poor remain behind in the refugee camps. It’s the people who once hoped for more from life than simply reaching a safe country, who once had ambitions and a future.” Yet this does not make City of Jasmine a story of privilege, but rather adds a thought-provoking, human dimension, as Amal cannot cope with being seen as a refugee, someone with nothing to her name except all the labels that come along with the situation into which she has been forced: “She hates being seen as a Muslim and a scrounger and she hates herself. The world has invented a new race – the race of refugees, Flüchtlinge, Muslims or newcomers. The condescension is palpable in every breath.”

This presentation forces us out of sanctimonious preconceptions and facile prejudices: the indictment is not only of the Syrian regime, but also of the way in which the west views the crisis and the people affected by it. Amal’s fate is loosely entwined with that of Hammoudi, a young doctor with a bright future. Hammoudi returns to Syria to renew his passport before taking up a prestigious job as a surgeon in Paris’s most elite hospital, and finds himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to leave his country even though his life is elsewhere. One of France’s most promising surgeons, he becomes an illegal war doctor, and when he is forced to flee to the west he becomes a refugee too, despite the life he already had in Paris.

I always try to avoid spoilers, so I can’t tell you how City of Jasmine ends and the twist that moved me most; I can only recommend that you read it for yourself. I’m careful not to over-use the adjective “heartbreaking” – it comes too easily and can mean so little if bandied around. But this story truly merits the word “heartbreaking” – beautifully written, sensitively translated, a unique and welcome perspective on the refugee crisis. I loved every page of this book, and I highly recommend it.

 

Changing the status quo: the 2019 Man Booker International prize

Tonight the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize will be announced, and it’s something of a landmark year for women in translation. I want to talk about how 2018’s Year of Publishing Women, though it seemed to have a relatively small reach at the time, has had a significant impact on this prize: it’s possible that we’re witnessing a coincidence on a grand scale, but perhaps the fact that the shortlist features a higher proportion of women than is usual for literary prizes is a direct consequence of the Year of Publishing Women – partly owing to what was published last year, but also because of an increased awareness of the importance of striving for greater balance. The gender ratio on this year’s shortlist has made headlines everywhere, but even in neutral reports an unconscious bias is evident; in The Guardian it was described as being “dominated” by women, a phrasing quite rightly questioned by women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski. Her point was that no shortlist with the opposite ratio would be described as being “dominated” by men – that would just be normal, right?

Image from themanbookerprize.com

Right. Except it’s so wrong that this attitude of male “domination” being normal is still prevalent. I’ve encountered several people in the past year who have said they’re unsure about whether there should be such a thing as a year of publishing only women, and so I’m just going to nail my colours to the mast and say that at this point in history YES, THERE SHOULD: women are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and this is compounded in translated literature as women face a double marginalisation. By not challenging this, we allow it to continue. Saying that we’re not gender-biased but still having catalogues or bookshelves that are heavily weighted towards male authors is, I think, quite dangerous: there may not be conscious bias, but the bias that exists at all the stages a book goes through on its journey to translation, publication and reception is allowed to continue – is even normalised – if we ignore it by believing that not being deliberately biased against women in translation is enough to tilt the balance.

So the Year of Publishing Women was brave and necessary, and opened a dialogue about the books that get published and those that don’t. In an interview last year, publicist Nicky Smalley told me that And Other Stories (the only publishing house to commit fully to the Year of Publishing Women) had to actively seek out books by women writers to fill the 2018 catalogue; one of those books, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, is now on the Man Booker International shortlist. The Remainder is a spirited dual narrative in which three young people shackled to the historical memory of the Chilean dictatorship drive a hearse through the mountains from Chile to Argentina in search of a corpse lost in transit, and was beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories. Its well-deserved place on the shortlist represents activism at its best, and it is not the only success of the Year of Publishing Women: the more women are published, the more they will be discussed, reviewed and entered for prizes, and the more these lists might see a more lasting shift where people are no longer surprised to see the scales tipped towards a preponderance of women writers. Where this is no longer “unprecedented”, no longer a surprising “domination”, but something perfectly normal – just as it will continue be perfectly normal for the ratio to favour men on other occasions. Neither scenario should be surprising, and yet one of them is.

The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist also smashes tired stereotypes of what women write about: women’s writing is too often pigeonholed as “romance”, “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”, and it is assumed and accepted that women write for women (an attitude brilliantly challenged by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) – these kinds of facile assumptions are exactly what perpetuate the invisible bias that women writers have to confront every time they sit down to write. And yet the women-authored books on the Man Booker International shortlist are extremely diverse: as well as Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, there is the second English-language publication of last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk: the magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a witty and poignant pseudo-noir murder mystery flawlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The difference in genre and voice from Flights (Tokarczuk’s 2018 prizewinner, translated by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions), along with the sheer scope of her work, shows that we cannot pigeonhole Tokarczuk (and, with her, Polish literature or women’s writing). And the excellent, ambitious books are not limited to The Remainder and Drive Your Plow (though they are my two unequivocal favourites on the shortlist): in Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi tells the history of Oman through the women of one fictional family, translated by Marilyn Booth for Sandstone Press; Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a “collective autobiography” of twentieth-century French cultural history, translated by Alison L. Strayer for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, an excoriating account of one man’s self-indulgent journey of enlightenment, finds new audiences in Jen Calleja’s sardonic translation for Serpent’s Tail.

Women represent half of history, half of the world, half of life – let them fill half your bookshelf, and then we won’t need a Year of Publishing Women or see women’s success framed in terms of anomalous “domination”. I’ve mentioned the scales tipping, the balance shifting, the ratios changing: the theme for International Women’s Day this year was “Balance for Better”, and I believe that the Year of Publishing Women has done exactly that. Shamsie noted that the real point of interest would be what happened in 2019:

“Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?”

2018 may not quite have been the “radically transformed publishing landscape” that Shamsie had hoped for, but the Year of Publishing Women did shake up expectations, complacencies, and resignation about the “unchangeability” of gender bias. The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist is testament to that, and as both gatekeepers and readers we need to carry on balancing for better so that the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women is not limited to one year, but carries on challenging the status quo until the status quo itself is changed.

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.

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.