Category Archives: #WITmonth

Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, author of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

I recently reviewed Guadalupe Nettel’s new collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, Seven Stories Press, 2020), and this week am delighted to bring you an interview with Guadalupe herself, offering insights into the themes and inspirations for Bezoar.

All of the stories in Bezoar deal with obsessions – from seemingly innocuous ones to those that can take over a life and set it on a different course. Did you deliberately write with this common theme, or is it a coincidence that there are echoes between the various stories?

Bezoar is a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. I’ve always felt drawn to uncommon people. For me, monsters are the absolute incarnation of beauty in its most authentic and most unpredictable form: brave and fragile beings who – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – oppose conventional models. But I didn’t choose characters that are completely out of the ordinary. Rather, I wanted to shine a light on compulsions and obsessions, the perverse tics and characteristics of ordinary people, the people we come across every day, ourselves even. We all have some aspect of our personality that we’d like to hide at any cost. As William Shakespeare said: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” However, I’m convinced that this thing that we try so hard to keep hidden is the source of our true beauty. I’d like it if in reading these stories, people – especially those who find themselves physically or psychologically repulsive and who are constantly comparing themselves to images of beauty and perfection in the media – started to see themselves differently; I’d like it if these stories made them want to embrace the characteristics that make them unique.

Photo credit: Mely Avila

Many of your narrators and protagonists are outsiders, whose life and experience is characterised by solitude – desired or enforced – and who exist in some way outside of conventional relationships, experience an estrangement from their own bodies, or inhabit their bodies in uncomfortable ways. What made you want to offer these perspectives in particular?

By the age of twenty I knew that I wanted to write about outsiders; about people who stand out from the crowd because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that is always looming over me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum.

Solitude is a theme that has marked my life. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. I feel deep empathy for people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. At the same time, reading is a powerful way to cope with solitude. Sometimes, when we read the right author for us at the right moment of our lives, even if it’s a Japanese writer from the 12th Century, we can feel identified and understood in a way that even our best friend can’t understand us. Fiction opens our minds, it makes us learn about other societies and cultures, imagine places where we haven’t been and like people that we never imagined we would understand. Not to mention past times or the different futures that humanity could face.

Some of the characters are also voyeurs, though not always in a conventional sense, and their voyeurism is very much connected to the cities they inhabit. Were there real people and/ or places that inspired these characters?

All these characters are inspired by friends, people I know, siblings or even myself. The second story, where a girl is spying on her handsome neighbour from the window while he is trying to get in bed with another girl, was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. At the beginning I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: Do you see that vertical line?” He asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Of course the origin of these stories was influenced by the cities in which they were written. Some of them were written in the north-east of Paris. The story that opens the book is set near Place Gambetta. It’s about a photographer who specialises in taking pictures of people’s eyelids. A lot of people have asked me how I managed to come up with such an absurd premise, and my answer is always that this person exists or existed in real life.

“Bezoar”, the title story, was written in Barcelona, where I lived for some years, but I didn’t want the place to be too recognisable and so I mixed it up with memories from a recent trip to Portugal. It was inspired by a particularly obsessive period of my childhood when I used to compulsively pull out my hair.

My three stand-out stories from the collection were “Petals”, “Ptosis” and “Bezoar”, all of which feature men who become obsessed with fragile women they want to save, but who they ultimately fail. Was this a deliberate theme that you wanted to explore?

I think that when I wrote these stories I was coming to terms with something which at that point was fundamental and painful for me: no-one can save another person if that person doesn’t want to be saved, and doesn’t give themselves over to being saved, no matter how much love we give them, no matter how much attention, interest or affection we bestow on them. Everyone has their own way of living, and no-one else can interfere with that. On the other hand, often what we consider to be the “right path” might not be the right path for others. In “Ptosis”, the photographer wants the girl to keep conforming to his ideal of beauty, but all she wants is to be like everyone else. Trying to impose a model of beauty or behaviour on someone is an extremely violent act.

The title story is taken from a myth about a healing gemstone that is also a ball of hair. Why did you choose this image/ legend around which to construct a story, or a collection of stories?

It’s a myth that human beings believed in for centuries, and now we find it completely absurd. There are bezoars in the Met Museum in New York, and I imagine in other museums across the world as well. The fact that a ball of hair can be seen as a precious jewel shows that it’s our own imagination that gives objects their value. But what interests me most about this object is what people want from it: an end to their suffering. What does it matter if it’s only a ball of hair, if this stone can bring peace and heal our illnesses or pains? That’s what we’re all ultimately searching for, and I find that very moving.

“Unsettling” is a superb word to describe these stories – I was expecting something possibly supernatural, but they are unsettling precisely because they are only a hair’s breadth away from common realities. Where do you draw inspiration for these stories, and why is it important for you as a writer to “unsettle” or disturb?

As I said earlier, literature opens our minds, but this doesn’t always happen in a gentle and painless way. When we move away from what’s familiar to us, it’s normal to feel some discomfort. I think that if this book is unsettling, it’s because when we talk about how other people are strange, it’s almost impossible not to think about how we are too. Even readers who thought they were completely “normal” realise that they too, or their loved ones, might be a little monstrous and have been trying to hide it their whole life.

How do you cope writing such unsettling stories in the first person? I’m thinking of what it would take to produce creepy phrases such as “I chose to discover women in the only place where they don’t feel observed: bathroom stalls” – is there a single approach that you take, or does it differ between stories?

It comes naturally. All my characters are outsiders in one way or another. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal” – I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye – and as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to other people. So I identify with the figure of the outsider. I don’t think I could bring a character to life if he or she wasn’t in some way a freak.

Were you involved in the translation process? More generally, how does it feel for your work to travel between languages and cultures?

When I can speak and understand it, it always gives me a bit of a shock to read myself in another language, but I find it amazing. To be translated into other languages and to be read by readers from different countries is an immense privilege.

Translation is an extremely delicate process. If it’s bad or careless it can be very damaging. It’s not like a badly subtitled film where you have not only the words but also the mise-en-scène and the acting, and so you can immediately identify incongruities in the translation. In literature, language is everything! Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going.  If the translation is into a language I understand, like English, I try at least to read the translation and collaborate as much as possible with the translator: answer their questions, deal with any doubts they have, make suggestions and correct potential errors. But I also try to respect their own style and interpretation.

Translation of those sections originally written in Spanish: Helen Vassallo, 2020

 

 

Review: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2020)

Breasts and Eggs is a spectacular and 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. The breasts and eggs of the title indicate difficult decisions about breast enhancement surgery and fertility for two sisters over the course of a decade, and Kawakami’s characterisation, dialogue and plot development are exquisite. English-language readers may have seen a glimpse of this in Kawakami’s previous novella, Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press) – I loved the beguiling awkwardness of the narrator in that novella, and Breasts and Eggs echoes this diffidence (an excruciating coffee date with a potential sperm donor is one of the squirm-in-your-seat highlights) while still offering an entirely new perspective on relationships. 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.

We meet narrator Natsuko one sticky summer, when her older sister Makiko is visiting Natsu in Tokyo with her adolescent daughter Midoriko in tow. Midoriko has taken a vow of silence where her mother and aunt are concerned, corresponding with them only via a notebook (and even then, in the most taciturn of epistolary communication). Makiko’s visit is not purely social: she has spent months researching the best way to have breast enhancement surgery, which she believes is the key to a more successful life. Makiko works as a hostess at a bar in the sisters’ hometown of Osaka, and is painfully aware that her advancing years mean that she is no longer at the top of this already fairly inglorious game. Makiko’s obsession with her breasts is desperate: she has already dedicated herself to painful, expensive and time-consuming methods of bleaching her nipples to make them pinker, indicating not only the idealised traps of gender, but also those of western culture.

We get to know Midoriko through Natsu’s observations of her niece, but also through snippets of her journal, which are presented to us out of time until the point that Natsu gives in and reads Midoriko’s journal. With Natsu, Makiko and Midoriko unable to find ways to connect to one another, the climax of their silent stand-off is perfect in its breaking of silence, hearts (and eggs), jagged words painfully egested so that we see the private pain that both Midoriko and Makiko share in isolation, each until now unable to understand the other. It is in scenes such as this one that the translators Sam Bett and David Boyd excel, communicating profound emotion with few words. The entire novel is understated, recounting significant personal upheaval and tragedy without ever descending into melodrama, and Bett and Boyd render this very well in a prose that strikes a deft balance between lyrical and contained.

Natsuko allows us insights into her childhood, raised by her mother and grandmother in near-poverty. Makiko’s greatest hope for her own financial security is her hostessing job, and Natsuko is an aspiring writer – a precarious position in a male-dominated industry, but one which introduces us to some fabulous supporting characters in literary agent Sengawa and radical writer Rika. The insights into Natsu’s circumstances offer an excellent view of creative life, showing a writer who does not have the luxury of time or the privilege of space in which to write; equally, they offer fresh perspectives on being a single woman in a world where others loudly and ostentatiously define themselves by their relationships.

Breasts and Eggs is also about bodies – Makiko’s ageing body, and her belief that by having it surgically enhanced her life will be better; Natsuko’s body, devoid of sexual contact by choice, and her deeply internalised need to have a child. It is about relationships, but not conventional ones, and indeed the narrative seems set on resisting all expectation and stereotype. It resolutely refuses to fall into tropes of defining what working-class womanhood “is” (though, as we see in one gloriously sardonic scene, it is definitely not about eating in trendy galette restaurants) – rather, it’s about everyday dreams and extraordinary bonds. Above all, Breasts and Eggs is a story of quiet tragedies: unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without great means, the people we lose (whether through death or by growing up and apart) and the longing for a person never met – whether an anonymous parent or an unconceived child. It is ambitious in scope and beautiful in expression, and quite simply one of my favourite books so far this year.

Review copy of Breasts and Eggs provided by Picador Books

Women in Translation month 2019: 8 books reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A road trip to remember: Olja Savičević, Singer in the Night

Translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books, 2019)

Singer in the Night is the second novel by Croatian author Olja Savičević; the narrator tells us that it is “a story about life”, and encompassed within this is a story about love and memory, and their attendant joys and losses. Both hilarious and profound, this book is a reflection on the ways we love, the paths we choose, the exhilaration and peril of being open to new experiences and the stagnation and dessication of choosing safety and banality over desire and dreams.

Singer in the Night is mostly narrated by Clementine, an eccentric soap opera scriptwriter. Clementine is a “blonde orange” with silicon lips and whitened teeth who gave up on art and followed money and popularity, for “people needed a lot of cheap, quick emotion, they needed it in greater quantities than it was possible to produce … Let’s face it, gunk has moved the vast majority of people and filled their thoughts probably more than the best work of art ever could.” Clementine hasn’t seen her ex-husband – the elusive poet Nightingale – in some time, but she is jolted into going in search of him when he disappears after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours in Split. The letters have been written in response to a bout of loud lovemaking in one of the buildings on the street; in this hot summer with all the windows open, the sounds of passion have carried, and inspired Nightingale to write from a variety of perspectives about love. There is no trace of Nightingale in Split; he has not been in contact with his friends and family, and even the yacht that he still co-owns with Clementine has been abandoned. Cue Clementine climbing into her golden convertible car and embarking on an unforgettable journey from Slovenia through Croatia to Bosnia in search of her lost love. Along the way she recounts her memories, which she sees “as though through polished glass”, and which are interspersed with the letters from Nightingale.

Nightingale’s letters delight in the possibilities of language; he is “a ruler over words and colours” who explores the breadth of lyric expression with his shrewd observations about society and human nature. Though they are ostensibly about the lovers keeping the street awake on the hot summer nights, this is really just a pretext to talk about love (“where the heart is not free there cannot be love”), resistance (“Why would a child write if it was well?”), politics (“People constantly sing about freedom, but at the same time with all their limbs, including their tongue, they stay on the border”), and a range of other musings on war, (anti)heroism, contingency, and life in all its chaos.

While Nightingale’s missives are poetically crafted, there are occasionally some unexpected turns of phrase in Clementine’s monologue. Given how distinctive the writing style is and how renowned Celia Hawkesworth is, I rather suspect they may have been there in the original too; I found the extended use of the imperative mood quite marked, but I can’t imagine that “Let mother come home soon” was chosen over, say, “I wish mother would come home soon” or “if only mother would come home soon” without a lot of thought, or that “starkers people” was chosen as a childlike colloquialism for naturists without deliberation over its unusualness. Clementine is a unique character, and so I suppose it follows that she has a unique way of speaking, which Hawkesworth conveys ably in the translation. The repeated use of “my dear” creates intimacy and hints at Clementine’s raconteur personality; it is an affected way of speaking that indicates the milieu in which she operates but also a form of self-address, as she is recording her voice for herself. For Clementine, we discover, is suffering from a progressive memory loss, and does not want to forget the detail of her life –particularly not its joys and its passions – and for this she needs to evoke Nightingale, the lost love of her life.

The final section of the novel is the one in which Nightingale finally speaks as a character, rather than through his letters. We find out why he left and how he perceives Clementine, as well as more detail on his life philosophies. But Clementine’s own story is also full of thought-provoking pathos: Savičević is a socially engaged writer, aware that “it’s the duty of anyone living in a dystopia to create a utopia.” Her narrative calls into question the world that she and her contemporaries inherited, Clementine’s personal tragedy mirroring the historical amnesia that post-war societies slip into, both encompassed in a phrase which could sum up the entire book: “what keeps us going is memory.”

If the narrative is disorientating at times, this is indicative of Clementine’s own confusion, her road trip an apt metaphor for the narrative ride she takes us on. Her outpourings fill the silences of a relationship and a youth that have faded away, and are populated by a cast of eccentric supporting characters, from the fearless, hairless Helanka and her twin daughters Billy Goat and Arrow to Clementine’s platonic “comrade” second husband Bert and her failed movie-mogul-turned producer Kalemengo. Part road trip, part social comment, part metaphor and part love story, above all this is an exploration of memory, with some fittingly memorable twists along the way. It is not Nightingale that Clementine is moving towards on this turbulent journey, but her past, her memories, and herself. This reflection on the fragility of memory – both personal and historical – is a poignant, innovative and politically engaged book that deserves attention.

Olja Savičević will be at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on Sunday 18 August.

Review copy of Singer in the Night provided by Istros Books.