Tag Archives: Comma Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from commapress.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.

 

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.