Monthly Archives: January 2021

Review: COCKFIGHT, María Fernanda Ampuero

Translated from Spanish (Ecuador) by Frances Riddle (Influx Press, 2021)

Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero, and comprises thirteen brutal and brilliant short stories in a superb translation by Frances Riddle. The opening story, “Auction”, sets the tone for the collection: the auctions in question are not genteel sales of antiques, but a terrifying form of human trafficking. People are dragged out of taxis and kidnapped, then taken to a barn where they are stripped down to their physical or financial assets and sold to the highest bidder.

The story opens with the narrator “kneeling, with my head down and covered by a filthy rag”, smelling the familiar stench of cockerels. We learn that she had grown up disposing of cockerel carcasses after cockfights organised by her father, and had developed an idiosyncratic but successful technique to survive harassment and rape attempts by the lowlife gamblers attending the fights: she would smear herself with the blood, guts and excrement of the dead birds, and stick a severed head or two between her legs when she went to sleep, to deter the men she had previously found peeking up her skirt when she woke.

Snap back to the auction, and a terrified middle-class man is sold off, followed by a desperate young woman who is handled like a piece of meat because, as the narrator observes, who’s to stop the auctioneer from groping her? There are no rules or laws in this horrific scenario, and so the resourceful narrator has to draw on her former experiences to ensure her survival. It’s a powerful opening story, and had me hooked.

The remaining twelve stories have a lot to live up to after such an explosive opener, and for the most part they do exactly that. From the nanny who tries to warn her charges that “we should be more afraid of the living than the dead” to the beautiful friend hiding a terrible secret, the beaten child turned voodoo warrior (“another lost girl in a world of lost girls”) to the young woman tied up in a shed by her brother so that the men of the village could do what they wanted to her, the women in Ampuero’s stories are prisoners in their homes, victims of “what a person is capable of doing when there’s nothing to stop them.” Yet they are fighters: they use the scant resources they have – abjection, witchcraft, tenacity – to survive the horrors inflicted on them.

Though each story is strikingly (and memorably) individual, there are connecting themes (and even, on one occasion, connecting characters) linking them. Casual, everyday sexism is taken for granted: households should have a (male) “head” if they are to command respect, religion is manipulated by godless violators as a pretext to control and “tame” women, beatings are readily accepted as necessary, and women are confined to the domestic space. People are monstruous, and grotesque imagery abounds (“He opened and closed his mouth, as if calling out their names, but no sound fell from that toothless gap, only maggots”), and the stench of blood and other bodily fluids pervades the stories. Religious faith melds with pagan magic in a way that places women at the centre of the story: in “Passion” a woman who is feared for her magical powers returns to the village where she was once a “creature of beatings, daughter of brutality, princess of the nights that end with wounded women”, in order to meet a special man; her love and powers are gradually revealed to be the secret to Christ’s miracles. In the horrifying “Mourning”, the two sisters Marta and María (Martha and Mary) are given a shocking contemporary re-imagining, María martyred “so she would understand from her scars that cruelty would always triumph over helplessness.” And yet there is a greater force at work here too: Marta fights her sister’s oppressor with “her dedication, her deference, her devotion, her broths, her tenderness, her herbal infusions”, wresting back power with quiet determination and a little black magic.

Frances Riddle’s translation is, as ever, admirable. I greatly enjoyed her exuberant rendering of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press 2017) and her nuanced presentation of Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War (Charco Press 2020), and she brings the same flexibility to Cockfight. Never shying away from the ferocity of Ampuero’s subject or style, Riddle offers an unflinching insight into the worlds Ampuero inhabits and constructs, with lexical choices that evoke the noise that serves as soundtrack to a story (“The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls”), that reveal abominations with a lightness of hand (“With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at home, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but some girl who slept peacefully. I laugh as if cruelty didn’t exist”), or that sum up in a single sentence all the horrors that haunt a character (“With a switch made of laurel – that switch made of laurel – they ripped up your back, your buttocks, your tiny chest, until shreds of flesh hung loose, like a half-peeled orange”).

With subject matter and descriptions that range from mildly uncomfortable to outright terrifying, these stories are disturbing and unsettling, and that is precisely the source of their power: no airbrushed, sanitised view of womanhood is offered, no false agency given to women who live in fear not just of what lies in wait for them outside their homes, but also within its walls. The insights in Cockfight are edifying and horrifying in equal measure, all upholding the observation in one of the stories that “People are incapable of seeing themselves, and that is the root of all evil.” This is a startlingly brilliant collection in an appropriately merciless translation; I highly recommend it.

Review copy of Cockfight provided by Influx Press

Introducing Praspar Press!

How much do you know about Maltese literature? My own answer: embarrassingly little (all the more shameful given that I’m part Maltese). But that’s set to change this year, thanks to new micropublisher Praspar Press. I’m excited to bring you an interview with its founders, Jen Calleja and Kat Storace, who set up Praspar Press to support contemporary Maltese literature written in English or translated into English.

Praspar Press currently has an open call for submissions to their first publication, an anthology of contemporary Maltese writing; see the end of the post for details of how to submit!

Photo credit: Robin Silas Christian

Kat Storace (pictured right) is a London-based writer and editor. She has worked in magazine and literary publishing in Malta and London, including at Faber & Faber, and is currently creative strategist at graphic design studio Gunter Piekarski.

Jen Calleja (pictured left) is a London-based author, editor, and literary translator from German to English. Her books include I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, Goblins, and Serious Justice. She has translated works by Marion Poschmann, Wim Wenders, Kerstin Hensel, Gregor Hens, Michelle Steinbeck, among others, and she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2018.

How did the decision to found Praspar Press come about?

We met at an English PEN event Jen was chairing back in January 2018 and realised we both had Maltese surnames, so, of course, made plans to go for a drink. When we met, we talked about everything under the sun, including UK publishing, Maltese publishing, translation, and about how little Maltese literature has reached the UK. We then had conversations at two London Book Fairs after two events focussed on Maltese literature in the wider world, one of which Jen was once more chairing, and it spurred us on to try and found our own project to address the lack of Maltese literature making it to readers in the UK and Anglophone readers in general, and to also support emerging Maltese writers. We started making real plans in late 2019/early 2020 and we made Praspar Press completely official in autumn 2020.

When you were putting your plans in place at the start of 2020, you couldn’t have foreseen the way the year would develop. Has the pandemic affected or changed your plans in any way?

If anything, the current situation sped things up – Kat was furloughed, which gave her more time to work on the admin sides of things, and we’ve had regular Zoom meetings and a few socially distanced business walks around Clapham Common. It did mean we weren’t able to fly to Malta to take part in the Literature Festival in person, but we could do the panels we were invited to take part in over Zoom.

Within contemporary Maltese literature, what in particular do you hope to bring more attention to with your publications?

That there’s a vibrant and unique literary culture that readers might not be aware of. And that it has a distinctive linguistic aspect – there are two main languages: English and Maltese (but these also overlap and can mix a lot), and this use of language also informs Maltese identity. There’s also a postcolonial aspect to much contemporary Maltese literature, and a preoccupation with history. Malta’s geographical position in the Mediterranean, its place in the world as an island nation, also creates a dual interaction – northwards or Western, with the influence of British literature, European literature and American literature, and southwards or Eastern, with the influence of the Arab world.

Tell me a bit about some writing from Malta that you love.

The poetry of Maria Grech Ganado has always been a favourite – she’s one of the few female voices of her generation and her poems are so wise, so lyrical, whether she’s writing in English or Maltese (she does both). Kat is obsessed with a collection of poems called għax id-drogi sbieħ by Marie Gion. It’s a self-published debut collection and is the single piece of literature that really captures what it is to be a teenager in Malta. And it has some of the most beautiful writing in Maltese that she’s come across. We’re both also big fans of Loranne Vella’s work, and we’re ecstatic to be working on an English translation of her short story collection, mill-bieb ’il ġewwa.

Your first publication will be an anthology of contemporary writing from Malta; do you already have ideas about the kind of submissions you’re hoping to receive?

We’re excited that we’re not one hundred percent sure what we’ll receive from our call out, and that it’s not been done before. We’re very grateful that the National Book Council in Malta are funding this first anthology. We could have simply invited writers we were aware of to submit, but we wanted it to remain accessible and open to a range of writers not only based in Malta, but who have Maltese heritage internationally too. The rationale behind the anthology is to offer Maltese writers an international platform and for us to connect with writers at all stages of their writing career, hopefully leading to us making great discoveries of writers and translators we’d like to work with on book-length projects in the future. We assume that most people working in UK publishing don’t know any Maltese writers or translators, and we want to help them find talented people to publish. If publishers of translated literature don’t know a translator of Maltese literature, it means they don’t have someone to consult for possible titles to translate or someone to read interesting titles or do samples for them, so maybe the anthology will open up some channels in that respect too.

What can we expect next from Praspar Press?

Our second publication, which will come out around the same time as the first anthology, will be the collection of short stories by writer and translator Loranne Vella. Kat is translating the stories, and we received funding for the translation from the NBC in Malta. We’re extremely excited to be bringing out this book, and to be introducing her to a new audience as she’s been recognised as a successful writer in Malta and in wider Europe for many years. At some point in 2021 we’ll be looking to commission our next publications, and hopefully doing a second anthology in 2022.

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Submissions to the anthology by Maltese writers, writers of Maltese heritage and translators of Maltese literature close on 31 January 2021. Visit www.praspar.com for more details.

 

REVIEW: The Book of Jakarta

Edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma (Comma Press, 2020)

The Book of Jakarta is the latest addition to the Reading the City series from Comma Press, presenting ten short stories based in the Indonesian capital. The stories that make up the collection share connected ideals, but each still offers a unique perspective on Jakarta, ranging from the political to the environmental, uncertain futures to seedy realities. Themes that recur in The Book of Jakarta are the stark divide between the wealthy and those struggling to survive, bureaucracies that range from the frustrating (“Seems like that rule was just put in place today, somehow”)* to the deadly (“for the past three days I’ve been watching the news, hoping to see his name on the list … We filed a report, and the officer told us they’ll be in touch”),** Jakarta as a place of multiple everyday dystopias – whether in the present reality, an imagined future, or alternative and not-so-unrealistic realities – and the perspectives of those on the margins of society. From an ageing sex worker to street buskers, a group of senior citizens left behind by modern life to a homeless artist, the voices are diverse but all speak from a place of dissent, of exclusion from a capitalist regime.

The translations are consistently strong and appropriately modern: there are clearly some cultural references that are tricky to translate, but I appreciated the use of occasional footnotes to help explain these.  One such reference explains the title of the opening story, “B217AN” by Ratri Nindity (translated by Mikael Johani): the title is a typical numberplate of the region, but is also a pun on a phrase meaning “together one destination”. This is key to the storyline of “B217AN”, which embodies two themes of The Book of Jakarta: movement and the outskirts. The brilliant opening line, “Tomorrow I’m getting married and tonight I rest my head on your shoulder”, sums up the story’s intrigue: two days before the narrator’s wedding she texts her former lover for one final meeting. At his insistence, the tryst is a scooter ride in adverse weather conditions to a seafood stall on the other side of town. The story is narrated in a second-person address, with the narrator both commenting on what is happening in the moment on their scooter journey, and remembering how they met and how their relationship developed. What is never explained is how they separated and the narrator came to be engaged to someone else: this is hinted at in subtle comments about the lover’s determination not to become part of mainstream life, and the narrator’s susceptibility to the myth that if she embraces such a life then she will be happy. This culminates in my favourite quotation from the piece: “People like me have to study really hard to get into the best school, the best university, and then get the perfect job that promises a better life. Sadly, this middle-class manual doesn’t have a section on how to be content.” The narrator is chasing after an elusive happiness that was promised to her generation if they followed a predetermined formula for success, but which never materialises, leaving her inhabiting the margins of a life from which she feels disconnected. Her eleventh-hour meeting with her former lover represents a final attempt to connect to life (“In this strange place, I feel like I can do whatever I want”), and to find something more satisfactory than the bland formula from which she feels disenfranchised: the detail of the journey and the not-so-final destination are superb.

Another striking perspective from the margins is found in Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s “Grown-Up Kids” (translated by Annie Tucker), in which a group of senior citizens in an apartment complex make a suicide pact. Four women (Mrs M, Mrs N, Mrs O and Mrs P) plan an outing to an amusement park to scare themselves to death on the biggest ride, while Mrs M’s husband prefers to step out of life at the National Library, where he and his wife had their first date. Mr and Mrs M’s diverging plans for their last rites epitomise the combination of pathos and humour that characterises the story: “Mrs M received a text and when she opened it she found a message from her husband: he had arrived at the National Library. Mrs M didn’t like the place; it was too big and too quiet. But Mr M relished its stillness, and as part of his poetic departure, he insisted he wanted to return to the location of their first date. Mrs M had blushed and blown her nose when she heard his plan.”

The story opens with abject reality, Mrs M helping her husband with his adult nappy and delicately dealing with his digestive problems. They say goodbye as if they were both going on separate errands, and as Mr M heads to the library, Mrs M joins her acquaintances (the anxious Mrs N, the health-food-obsessed Mrs O, and the overly coarse Mrs P, brilliantly sketched out in a series of pithy observations that Tucker renders in English with great tongue-in-cheek humour) on their final journey to the amusement park. “Grown-Up Kids” is set in a near but all-too-possible future (in which the capital of Indonesia has relocated, a plan for the near future explained by editors Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma in their introduction to the volume), leaving Jakarta a shell of historic buildings and tourist attractions. We are given a flashback to Mr and Mrs M in their youth, when they met as rebellious students taking part in an uprising (which I understood, though perhaps erroneously, to be the May 1998 events referenced in the introduction). Mrs M then searched for Mr M on the internet, and given that they are now of an age that robs them of control over their own bowels, that could set the date of the story at around 40-50 years from now. *UPDATE: the demonstration referenced is actually a 2019 event, which would locate the date of the story around 60-70 in the future*

“Grown-Up Kids” showcases the anthology’s blend of tragedy and humour, ideals and banality, and its ending shows the cynicism needed for real survival in a not-too-distant evolution of modern society, as well as echoing the terrifying-turns-cynical ending of utuit’s “Buyan” (translated by Zoë McLaughlin). As in the excellent “A Secret from Kramat Tunggak” (by Dewi Kharisma Michellia, translated by Shaffira Gayatri), older generations who have helped modern Jakarta prosper are cut off from a world – or a city – that no longer has any use for them. This generational conflict, disenfranchisement and exposition of the concept of social “usefulness” is echoed throughout the anthology. There are also implicit and explicit criticisms of the Suharto regime, of what followed it and where this could lead: this is a collection that gently educates and enlarges perspectives without ever being overly didactic, and which brings together a common purpose without reducing the sprawling archipelago to homogeny or stereotype.

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Join us for the virtual launch of The Book of Jakarta! On Tuesday 2nd February at 1pm (BST) I will be talking to authors Ratri Ninditya and Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrieke and translator Rara Rizal about their work on this exciting collection. Further details and tickets available here.

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Review copy of The Book of Jakarta provided by Comma Press

* From “The Aroma of Shrimp Paste”, Hanna Franisca, translated by Khairani Barokka

** From “The Problem”, Sabda Armandio Alif, translated by Rara Rizal

Women in translation 2020: my literary picks for the year that was…       

I had intended to post this piece in December, but the end of the year brought some unexpected challenges and I had to delay it until the new year. So although you may have left 2020 behind with relief, I hope you’ll still be willing to travel back there with me in books: 2020 will be remembered for many things (okay, mostly for one thing), but here’s a reminder of some of the great books that were released in a year none of us saw coming.

It feels strange now to look back on the post I wrote a year ago about the books I was excited to read in 2020. Throughout the year, I didn’t read as much as usual. The reasons are probably obvious: the concept of “free time” shifted radically with the lockdowns and restrictions. I read a total of 56 books, and there were quite a few I didn’t really connect with – I don’t know whether this is partly to do with the circumstances, or whether 2020 just wasn’t the year for me in terms of new releases – but it does mean that the ones I really, truly loved were very easy to pick. I’ve gone for a “top nine”, which I know is a little irregular, but these were the ones I didn’t hesitate about when I came to pick my favourite books from this strangest of years…

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Hurricane Season was the second book I read in 2020, and it set the bar. I felt a little sorry for everything I read in the weeks after this, as there was just no way anything could come close for me. Hurricane Season opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. A torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there, Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind. Bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, the translation by Sophie Hughes is astonishing: if I had to pick just one book for the year, this would be it. Full review

 

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books)

Natsuko longs for a child of her own, while her sister Makiko thinks life will be better if she has breast enhancement surgery and her niece Midoriko has taken a vow of silence. All three women are trapped in social conventions, and Breasts and Eggs is a delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments. Full review

Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)

I’ll be honest: Charco had me at “new Margarita García Robayo novel in 2020”. In Holiday Heart, García Robayo’s talent for blending tragedy with humour and offering a fresco in a snapshot were in full force. The characters always disappoint: Lucía and Pablo are middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, stagnating in their location, their social status, and their marriage. They left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but they are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped. This is an uncomfortable story, and García Robayo excels at depicting a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us. Full review

 

Lucy Fricke, Daughters, translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books)

Hilarious and emotional madcap road trip through Western Europe. Sold? You should be. Daughters was an outstanding release from new imprint V&Q Books, in which best friends Martha and Betty embark on a car journey to Switzerland to accompany Martha’s father to his appointment with euthanasia. Or so they think – a detour reveals a hidden agenda, and they never make it to Switzerland. There are losses, reunions, an accident, romantic intrigue, and the reappearance of someone long presumed dead… The storytelling of this fast-paced and eventful journey switches effortlessly between grief and humour, both of which are superbly communicated in Sinéad Crowe’s energetic translation. Full review

 

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her fragmented family together years later. Her first baby was taken from her during the war, and years later the spectre of the lost child hangs over the rural family life and its daily difficulties. Two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home. This simmering narrative is a story of resistance and resilience, quiet losses and enduring love, and is translated with great sensitivity by Julia Sanches. Full review

 

Négar Djavadi, Arène, Éditions Liana Levi (French; as yet untranslated)

Négar Djavadi’s second novel came out in French in the autumn, and it is magnificent. If you don’t read French, I highly recommend starting with her first novel Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover, Europa Editions), and then crossing your fingers that this one will be picked up for translation before long. The arena of the title is Paris: in a Belleville bar one night, a young man from a deprived housing estate knocks into the head of the biggest media streaming platform; neither of them are aware that this chance collision will draw them and everyone around them into a maelstrom of violence. Yet Arène is not just about the tragedy that unfolds, but also the chain of barely perceptible events that led there. Djavadi eschews facile stereotypes, and in a linguistically sumptuous narrative invites us to understand what lies behind our quick assumptions about power, race and relationships.

 

Europa28, edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press)

2020 wasn’t just the year of Covid-19, but also the year the UK left the European Union. In response, Comma Press teamed up with Hay Festival and Wom@rts to commission Europa28, a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe. In this visionary project, editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean: from the personal to the allegorical, the real to the fantastic, this collection is by turns gentle and fierce, witty and emotional, bringing together 28 very different stories with a common purpose of discussing Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility. Full review

 

Salma, Women Dreaming, translated from Tamil by Meena Kandasamy (Tilted Axis Press)

This beautiful story of a community of women in a small Muslim village in Tamil Nadu is exquisite in its style, pace, and depictions of the reality of life for women who have no real autonomy. When Mehar’s husband Hasan takes a second wife, she exercises her legal right to divorce him, and finds herself ostracised by the community. Goaded by Hasan’s righteous wrath and no longer able to bear her mother’s constantly-voiced fears for her future, Mehar marries again in order to regain her status, but she loses her children in the process. Eloquent, emotional and powerful, Women Dreaming is essential reading, in a dynamic yet delicate translation by Meena Kandasamy.

 

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)

The final offering from Tilted Axis in 2020 is astonishing – possibly my favourite Tilted Axis book of all time. I had already read and loved Yan’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press (and reviewed here), so I was excited to read this earlier work. Yet I wasn’t quite expecting to be so moved by this tale where humans and fantastical beasts co-exist (unharmoniously) in a Chinese city, trying to ignore the reality that sometimes the beasts are more human than the people and the humans more monstruous than the beasts. Though there is plenty of allegory in Strange Beasts of China, I just loved it for its compelling storytelling, the mystery at its core, and the heart of all the characters – whether human or beast. The translation by Jeremy Tiang is outstanding; I kept pausing to admire a turn of phrase, a beautifully crafted sentence, or a sensitivity to register.

 

 

So that’s my slightly belated round-up of my favourite releases of 2020. I hope there’s something in here that will pique your interest, and offer a small ray of joy from a challenging year. Happy New Year to all friends of Translating Women, and thank you as always for reading!