Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.

The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado | Review

I won't lie: This book is creepy, uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I really enjoyed it. Is it good? Yeah, probably. That disturbing, chilling effect is clearly intentional, reflecting Viola Di Grado's talent as a writer (translated into English by Antony Shugar), but I'll say right off the bat: It's not enough.

Hollow Heart follows Dorotea, a young woman who has recently killed herself. Her foray into the afterlife is rather unremarkable - as her body rots away in the ground, she finds herself completely aware of everything. She's effectively "still alive", wandering around the real world, but now aware of all the other dead souls still walking around. In Di Grado's imagination, people do not really die when they die. They can still interact with the living world, move objects and haunt, but they are invisible to all but a few living souls.

For the suicidal Dorotea, this proves to be a shift in "life". She continues to go to work, invisible to the customers in the stationary store she works at, but her boss can somehow still see her. She makes new dead friends. She writes ambiguously imaginary postcards to other dead people who she knows or has stumbled across. She keeps a journal to track her decomposing body, in gruesome and detailed terms.

Unsurprisingly, Hollow Heart is an unsettling read. Dorotea's description of her rotting body is not flat, rather it's an odd blend of curious and ambivalent. For the reader, however, it can be downright unpleasant. I'll note that any readers with aversions to bugs may be especially disturbed by the graphic descriptions of changes the body goes through during decay. It's... well, it's rather horrifying. I won't pretend that I liked it very much.

It's more than the dry way Di Grado writers about death. It's the way the entire book seems seeped in melancholy, depression, and a lack of awareness. And of course, it's hard to resist the urge to compare this to Di Grado's previously published novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. There too Di Grado focused a laser beam on a depressed young woman living with a depressed mother, and the impact this has on both. The two books end up feeling very similar to each other, as though Hollow Heart is an emotional continuation of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, but with the creepiness turned up. Perhaps this was part of the problem - I already knew that Di Grado could write creepy, subversive novels (though I would argue that Hollow Heart is far more "normal" and "standard" than 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which at least surprised me in several places), but this almost feels like a continuation of the same. There is an almost pathological interest in the grossness of death. If not for Hollow Heart's clear de-romanticization of death, taken together, it'd almost feel like these books are glamorizing mental illness. Hollow Heart at the very least does little to dispel it.

The writing is a little jerky, at times somewhat abruptly clunky, but it fits the narrative fairly well. Overall, it casts a sense of distance between reader and story, quite befitting a tale of suicide and the afterlife. It's got much of the punchiness that 70% Acrylic 30% Wool had, but little of the enjoyment that I felt from reading that novel (or the payoff from a strong ending). Hollow Heart left me feeling a little, well, hollow towards Di Grado as a writer. Cooler. While I'm still certainly intrigued by her talent, I find myself wishing she'd try a different angle in her next foray... or at least a different take on this same story. Perhaps a slightly more mature one.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

WITMonth to WITMonth: New releases!

A lot happens in a year. From August to August, we can identify a lot of great titles by women in translation (though not nearly as many as we'd like!), published in different countries, under different presses.

And so to make things just a bit easier for readers getting ready for WITMonth 2017, I've decided to compile a list of some of the books that I'm aware of... with, of course, a desire to add as many additional titles as possible! Publishers/translators/bloggers: If you know of any other titles published between August 2016 and August 2017, feel free to drop me a line and I will promptly add them to this list! Similarly, if you identify any error in my database, let me know and I'll make sure to fix it. This is definitely just the preliminary list, with many more eligible newly released books by women in translation just waiting to be added.

Please note that the list contains titles available in both the US and the UK! Some do not have the same release dates, so keep an eye out for your local publishers.

Link to the WITMonth 2017: New Releases database!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Liliana Ursu's poetry is all angles, all edges

My grandfather - whose second language happens to be Romanian - picked up my copy of Liliana Ursu's Goldsmith Market (translated by Sean Cotter) and examined the open, untranslated poem on the left-hand side of the page. He read it aloud, cautiously, skeptically, translating it back to me (into Hebrew, not English), then handed back the book with a decidedly unimpressed expression on his face.

That expression made sense, in all fairness. Not just because my grandfather is not quite the man for poetry recommendations, but also simply because the poem he had read aloud was weak. It was edgy and sharp, but lacking in any powerful message or particularly evocative imagery.

This isn't to say that all of Liliana Ursu's poetry is lacking. Indeed, I've found several poems in Ursu's first full-length English translation that warrant attention and care, poems with power in their angles and sharpness. Poems that breathe new life into frigid air by cutting through it. Take the second half of "A Day in Winter", for example:
A day in winter, a day in summer: same soulsame words, same list of things;only wild ducks fluttering over the frozen green riverkeeps them apart.
The sentences taste brittle, but there's this eerie strength to them as well. But most of the poems in this collection tend to fall into the first category, even with all these "angles". I've said this before and I'll say it again: poetry to me is about feelings as much as it is about language. I probably won't remember the specific words used in a certain poem, but I'll remember how I felt reading it. This means I'm a little less tolerant to bland poetry, particularly ever since I've discovered that there's so much good poetry (particularly in translation, particularly by women).

Ursu's poems aren't solidly bad, they aren't even solidly boring. They're definitely interesting, with that distinct style. There are poems that had me scrambling for air, poems that had me shivering, poems that had me smiling. But the balance tilts just a bit too strongly towards the poems that didn't really mean much on an emotionally stimulating level. Simply put, it's an okay stylistic collection: some gems, some duds. That's to be expected.

Interestingly, I find myself more impressed with the translation, perhaps because of my (very, very limited) knowledge of Romanian. The poems in Romanian had a certain beat to them, one that made some sense to me in terms of that language's style. This rhythm, interestingly, was not maintained in translation. Rather, it seems as though Cotter made a conscious choice to translate style into something English-language speakers would better understand, occasionally changing line structures and thus the poem's flow.

All in all, this collection is far from bad, but it's difficult to offer a rousing endorsement of it either. Its edges provide occasional grasping points, but I can't quite say that I connected with all of it. I can certainly see how other readers might appreciate the sharpness (occasionally harshness) of writing Ursu prefers, but only some of the poems really worked for me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Announcing WITMonth 2017

Hot on the heels of Women's History Month, I find myself wanting to look forward to the summer, to August, and to new ideas for the 4th annual Women in Translation Month (WITMonth 2017). The project has grown from year to year in a truly astonishing way, with more readers, writers, translators, publishers, librarians, and booksellers getting involved from year to year. But of course, there is always room to advance.

As we know, the imbalance regarding women in translation has not abated in recent years. Certain efforts have been made (by publishers, by translators, by bookstores, etc.) to address the imbalance, with the most recent leading to the formation of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Not only is this wonderful news for anyone seeking a comfortably curated list of recommendations, it is also a strong motivator for publishers to step up their game.

Yet despite such efforts, it's hard to look at objective numbers and not grimace. The recently released Man Booker International Prize longlist, for example, highlights the stark imbalance like nothing else, with only 3 books by women writers on a 13-book-strong list. While many have tried to downplay this (by gently, simperingly pointing out that it merely reflects the publishing imbalance), I am less forgiving. Neither imbalance should exist. It's time to do more than talk about how change needs to occur, and start making it happen.

And so, my dear friends, it is time to announce my personal goals for WITMonth 2017:

Increased exposure

Last year saw more and more readers, bookstores, translators, and publishers get involved in Women in Translation Month than ever before. However, the project itself - and WITMonth by extension - remain woefully niche. Most readers have not only never heard of WITMonth, they haven't even heard of the existing imbalance that led to its inception. As with previous years, the first goal of WITMonth 2017 must be exposure. This means contacting your local bookstores and libraries to see if they will include WITMonth displays. This means contacting publishers with abysmal track records and encouraging them to publish more women in translation. This means sharing the data - and the news - with your fellow readers, translators, bloggers, etc.

Reading the world through Women in Translation

Many of you will likely already be familiar with Ann Morgan's brilliant A Year of Reading the World project. This admirable project did a lot in encouraging readers to expand their horizons, however it was very heavy on English-language literature (often from a foreigner's perspective). Over the next few months, I'll be sharing my personal list of "reading the world through women in translation", which will seek to explore as much of the world as possible through as many languages as possible, all through works by women writers. While it will be impossible to visit every country on earth in this way, the stated goal is to read as much as possible from as many different perspectives as possible. The women in translation project - as I have stated many times - must be intersectional in all forms. While my own reading has largely kept me locked into Europe (and straight, white, middle-class narratives), my hope is that a project of this scope will enable me - and any fellow readers who choose to join me on this many-years-long journey - to break free of any preconceived notions.

Exploring different genres

While I have sought to include books belonging to various different genres every year, WITMonth tends to fall into a fairly predictable "literary fiction" pit. Like with previous years, I hope to encourage readers to explore genres beyond plain literary fiction or poetry, instead exploring thrillers, children's literature, science fiction, fantasy, YA, and romance as well. 

None of these stated goals are particularly new. But nonetheless, I find myself wanting to emphasize the need for diversity, within this project that is all about giving voice to those generally left voiceless. We've many months to go before August, but there's no time like the present to begin planning!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation!

On this International Women's Day eve, it's wonderful to have some truly good news on the women in translation front!

The newly announced Warwick Prize for Women in Translation - currently accepting submissions - is a wonderful step towards increasing visibility for women writers translated into English, and raising awareness of the startling global imbalance.

Prizes are more than just a monetary reward for a certain author (or in this case, author/translator team). Prizes are more than just ego boosts. Prizes are a brilliant way for many readers to identify high-quality books that might interest them. They provide authors with exposure, something sorely needed in a field as marginalized as that of women writers in translation. Prizes also encourage publishers to produce more of the thing, in this case showing many publishers of literature in translation that there is a market for women writers from around the world. This prize will help raise awareness of the problem, as well as provide many new readers with great recommendations across genres.

I cannot express how thrilled I am that this prize is happening and how happy it makes me. And who knows, maybe there'll be a longlist by next August (WITMonth!) that we can all shadow...!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dear Diego - Elena Poniatowska | Review

Will I ever cease to be surprised by the power of such slim books? Dear Diego is an especially light novella, framed with a softness of prose that makes it seem even shorter, but it has a lasting impact. Two weeks since reading it, and my mind is still turning over its quiet characterization of Angelina Beloff.

Angelina's is the sole clean voice in Dear Diego (translated from Spanish into Hebrew by Michal Shalev), a fictionalized set of letters from a lonely, abandoned, forgotten, and still-loving wife to a man whose place in history is assured. These letters are based on the real correspondence between Angelina and Diego (after he left France for Mexico), yet there is something subtly ethereal in them.

Elena Poniatowska's writing places Angelina at the forefront, writing wistfully to a husband who simply doesn't respond and doesn't seem to care about his wife anymore. At first, Angelina's messages both acknowledge this abandonment and wait for it to end - she signs off with love, hopes to hear from him soon, is eager for return letters. But as the novella progresses, Angelina's expectations seem to fade (even as her declarations of love do not). She begins to address his lack of responses more bluntly. She references rumors she's heard from other friends. The gentle tone turns almost fragile, brittle.

It's always strange reading fiction based on real historical figures. The trick to Dear Diego's success lies in Angelina as narrator. Her stories - of her marriage with Diego, the loss of their son, her arrival in Paris as a Russian ex-pat and painter, her own artistic ambitions - turn her into a living, breathing woman. Whether all the facts align with history itself is unclear, but it almost doesn't matter.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the presentation of Rivera. While Angelina's tone is often loving and gentle, she (through Poniatowska's sharp eye) paints a portrait of a deeply selfish man, whose at-times cruelty is forgiven simply because he is a "great artist".

My edition of Dear Diego came paired with another Rivera-tangent story by Poniatowska - Diego, estoy sola, Diego ya no estoy sola: Frida Kahlo. This short-story is significantly less powerful than Dear Diego, fading rather quickly from my memory and leaving behind only a very strong sense of Frida Kahlo's physical struggles. The story is somewhat uneven, though this may be a result of its pairing with Dear Diego - I have rarely enjoyed reading short stories immediately after novellas. Even so, the book presents Poniatowska as a first-rate writer, one whose works wholeheartedly deserve a revival. I can't wait to read more.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Is Awareness Enough? | How We Fight (Part 3)

I expect most people reading this blog know me from the Women in Translation project, or #WITMonth. Throughout that project, I have argued that a huge step in improving the abysmal state of translation - and women in translation in particular - must be in increasing awareness. I have argued that when people are aware of a problem, they are halfway to solving it.

This argument becomes murky in a world populated with "alternative facts" and outright misinformation. When truth itself becomes a question, does awareness of a problem mean anything?

The past few days and weeks have seen turbulence in all directions. I have often found myself speechless, incapable of even comprehending how quickly things have fallen apart. I have found words almost impossible to come by. Yet there has also been a strong backlash, one driven not by awareness but of action. "We're done being aware of the problem," these protests seem to say. "Now we're going to tear it down."

Awareness serves a critical purpose in this resistance. Without it, there would simply be no-one protesting. It is much simpler to accept a broken world if you never know/acknowledge that it is broken. This is true of all activism, and indeed is often its limiting factor. Why should someone protest that "black lives matter" if they don't know that a horrifying imbalance exists between the way white and black Americans are treated by police? Why should someone protest a lack of women in STEM if they don't realize that women go through years and years of social conditioning and at-times outright discrimination that prevents the field from being properly integrated? Or to use an example closer to home: Why should someone care about the women in translation problem if they've never even heard that such a problem exists?

Large or small, major or insignificant, activism is built on the back of awareness. On education. On exposure to different voices and ideas. But awareness only sets the stage. Awareness makes it possible for activism to go forward, and go forward it must.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What Are the Important Stories? | How We Fight (Part 2)

There is an endless discussion within many progressive communities regarding how to define the movement. Does the term "diverse" effectively ghettoize authors and stories by otherizing their writing? Should we specifically refer to "people of color", or does that hearken to outdated and offensive terms? Should "queer" romance be labeled as such, or does the use of the label effectively mark it as different from "regular" romances? What demands notice? Is discussing one marginalized group effectively a means to ignore another marginalized group?

These are arguments I usually find to be pointless. Not because they don't highlight important movements, but because there are no simple answers. If we only focus on the label question for a moment, different people just have different personal preferences. To use a fairly common example, the term "queer" is slur for some, while a reclaimed and proud label for others. Neither is wrong, of course. The same can be applied to questions of diversity or marginalized groups. Some writers might feel that being labeled as "diverse" is highly offensive, and places them within a box that explicitly separates them from the "normal" straight, white male standard. Others feel that this is an important way to highlight their works and help guide readers to read more broadly. There is no simple answer.

This ties into the question at the heart of today's post: What are the important stories? What does it even mean to seek out "diverse" works, or books by "marginalized" writers? Is it a simple question of authorship, or is there meaning to the content of the work? How do we identify those stories which will broaden our horizons?

This question is further complicated by the fact that "importance" is relative. As I mentioned in the previous post (Why Stories Are Important), there are two factors to the power stories might have. They can either serve as a form of representation - either for a person who wishes to see themselves belonging in a certain role or for someone outside that group in recognizing the legitimacy of belonging - or as a form of normalization. Each of these factors is inherently dependent on the context of the person engaging with the story.

It's important to recognize that context changes. Chinese literature, for example, is not "diverse" by Chinese standards. However, Chinese literature in translation is extremely rare in English (and rarer still in other languages!), giving it a different cultural context for non-Chinese readers. Though the stories themselves may range in subject matter and culture-specific representation, they both normalize Chinese culture for foreign readers and represent one slice of life. (The problem, I should note, begins with the fact that single stories can never be representative. See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk about "The Danger of a Single Story".)

Even within Anglo-American stories, the range may change according to where you come from. Small town readers can encounter the swell of different people they may never meet in their day-to-day lives. City readers can encounter the intimacy and individualism bound up in rural communities. Wealthy readers can learn about the struggles of working class life. Majority readers can learn about the difficulties in growing up in a minority or otherwise oppressed group. Everyone can learn about other cultures from around the world.

Important stories are not necessarily created equal, however. Privilege is a tricky Venn diagram to navigate, in which you may belong to a marginalized group in one circle, but be privileged in another. As previously discussed on this blog, intersectionality is critical and must be kept in mind when seeking true diversity/representation of the world as it is. It is also important to remember that belonging to one marginalized group does not automatically make the artist/the art immune from criticism in other fields. (This too is a common argument within the field; do we perhaps judge works by marginalized artists more harshly than those by culturally dominant voices?)

I think it ultimately comes down to a much simpler question: Does this story have the power to introduce you to new ideas, new cultures, or new perspectives?

Not all new ideas are inherently good. Many of the "new" ideas being raised today are far from it. However, almost all new ideas will force you to critically examine their position and unravel their implications. And while that doesn't automatically translate into good, it's at least a step in the right direction and an excellent tool in our fight.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Why Stories Are Important | How We Fight (Part 1)

I am 25 years old, and I will never meet everyone in this world.

A girl grows up in a small town. She is surrounded by family, a community, and her life is complicated and difficult in its own ways. She works hard. She has her faith, her beliefs. She watches boys and girls in her community go to war, some come back and some don't and some are unrecognizable. She watches some films, reads some books, watches some TV.

She sees certain stories played out, again and again. She watches a film about a man not unlike her neighbor who goes to fight a war against an enemy. She knows what that enemy looks like. She reads a book about a romance between two people who remind her of her parents. She knows what those good people look like. She watches the news and sees that a young man who looks just like her son is being accused of committing a crime so heinous, it can't be real. She knows what injustice is. She reads the newspaper and sees that a policewoman who looks just like her sister-in-law is being rebuked for the obviously accidental death of an older woman (who can't be from around here, she looks so out of place).

Our world is shaped by the stories we encounter. This is not something that applies only to readers or certain types of people, rather it's a trait shared by all humans across every culture on earth. Storytelling - in some form or other - has guided mankind since our first days.

Storytelling has also always had another power, one that has not yet fully been unlocked. This is the power of expansion.

Like me, the hypothetical girl/woman described above, will never be able to meet everyone on earth. Like me, she will navigate life doing the best she can with the tools she has. She will look at people and make connections to what she knows. She will make decisions based on these connections. She will recognize the humanity in other's based on her experiences.

And like me, she will fail.

She will fail because it is impossible to know everyone. Humans are complex and baffling. Our lives are huge, but they are also tiny and isolated. There will always be things in this world that are foreign to me, types of people I have never met, situations I've never imagined, beliefs I could never conceive of. Some of these things will be frightening in their foreignness, in their difference from what I believe in.

The question then becomes: How do I learn to set aside that fear?

Stories provide us with settings that we could otherwise never encounter. Not only can stories force us to see the world through the eyes of someone different or foreign, it can introduce us to entire contexts that we might not have otherwise encountered. These don't have to be fiction and they don't have to be literature. I learned about Chinese marketplaces from a friend who wandered through them. I learned about the struggles of being blind from the side of a blind friend. I learned about the discrimination against queer people from friends who almost didn't have the words.

But I don't know everyone. I learned about the changing landscape of modern Nigeria from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I learned about Georgia's post-independence struggle in the early 1990s from Nana Ekvtimishvili's film In Bloom. I've learned about ancient Korea from Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard, about the struggles of being black in upper-class 18th century England through the film Belle, about one girl's experience with mental illness from the television show My Mad Fat Diary, and so on.

And this, of course, does nothing in regards to stories that simply normalize things I'm not familiar with. Sometimes, just the act of showing that something different to one person is, in fact, normal is critical, whether it relates to race, ethnicity, religion, physical ability, gender and identity, sexuality, or class background. Stories allow us to recognize humanity in people we've never met, in situations we've never encountered, in cultures we previously didn't understand.

These all combat hate, and this is one way in which we fight.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How We Fight

Hello friends.

This is a book blog. It's a book blog that focuses predominantly on a specific subset of literature in translation these days, looking at the women in translation project and guiding readers throughout Women in Translation Month. This was never an especially personal blog, nor was it meant to be a political one. But it morphed along the way. As my literary focus shifted, so too did the political nature of that interest. Fighting for representation of more women writers in translation in our cultural consciousness is, after all, inherently political. Seeking the power of stories is inherently political.

Another shift is coming.

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, I find myself seeking more than just words. More than just comfort in a frightening time. I find myself seeking action and results. I find myself frustrated with a world in which it is too easy to let hate triumph. So it's time to do some things.

While the "How We Fight" series will predominantly focus on the arts, it will not be limited to books. Rather, I want to look at the power of stories. Books are hugely important in providing us with a means of seeing through the eyes of someone very different from us, but they're not alone. Television, film, webseries, photography, etc. all carry great weight in how we learn about the world around us. About ourselves and others.

This series will look at things that we as individuals can do and changes that we as a society must make. It will attempt to focus on books and stories that contribute to this cause. Please join me. Let's fight back.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The struggle of short story collections | Nasreen Jahan and Gail Hareven

This is an odd confession and one that makes me slightly uncomfortable, but... I struggle with a lot of single-author short story collections. As I've mentioned in past reviews, many collections start to feel dragged down for me because of their repetitive styles and themes. Kjell Askildsen, for example, lost me when every single story ran along the exact same threads and ideas. Even authors I love - like Tove Jansson - lose me relatively quickly once the stories start to feel like they follow the same mold. It's not that the individual stories are themselves bad, it's just that... they're basically the same story again and again, with a different wrapping.

This happened to me again recently, with two collections: Nasreen Jahan's slim A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories, and the most recent short story collection from Gail Hareven (in Hebrew: אנשים טועים, or "People Fail"). Jahan's collection - kindly provided to me via the publisher and translated by multiple translators - struck me instantly as an interesting collection that I couldn't delve into in one go. Small as the book is (and brief as the stories are), I just couldn't sink into it. Reading three stories in a row, I felt like they had blended into each other. Even as the different translators produced a slightly different effect for the stories, it felt like Jahan was examining the same story from slightly different angles. Extremely interesting, but... not necessarily something I want to read in one go.

And that feeling continued, even as I revisited the stories in pieces. I loved how Jahan focused on women's stories and the slightly more fantastical pieces, but at times it was a bit difficult to disentangle the stories from each other. After finishing the collection, the stories seemed blended - I know that I read many different accounts of lives in Bangladesh, but I didn't feel like any single story stood out or distinguished itself from the bunch. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the pretty stark differences between the translators' different styles - while Jahan's story structures felt similar, the writing didn't always feel like it came from the same author and the balance was perhaps thus skewed.

I had a slightly different experience with Gail Hareven's latest, which I'm currently reading. This new short story collection, so far, is entirely written in a conversational style. Every. Single. Story. The first story - though I didn't like the subject matter or narrator much - felt like a revelation. Such a cool style! So casual and comfortable. The next story improved on the style, chatting easily about a completely different topic. As did the next. And the next. And the next...

And so though the story plots themselves stand out surprisingly well, the style begins to feel tedious. Is this an exercise on Hareven's part? Is she simply exploring every possible character with this style? Part of me feels that I ought to commend the collection for playing so blatantly with an unconventional style, but I also find it exhausting. Though the narrators are different from each other, the conversational aspect makes everyone sound just a bit more alike than they would in any other storytelling format. I find myself itching to read through a story from another angle, not simply have a story told at me.

Jahan and Hareven's collections have their obvious merits and I would not for a moment want to take away from them. But I can't help that feeling of "can't I get something just a bit different?" On the one hand, a short story collection with too many changes in style or structure will feel cobbled together and poorly designed. On the other hand, these collections feel repetitive in a way that detracts from the strengths of the individual stories.

Some collections manage to avoid either pitfall, but these are often exceptions. Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories, for example, is a book I've both read through in large chunks and one I've visited sporadically (I'm about halfway through, and remain in awe of Lispector's ability to write completely different stories with a completely unique feeling and yet her distinct style throughout). But Lispector is a unique case of an author whose entire body of work rather feels like a masterclass in short story writing. Most writers fall somewhere in the range between Jahan and Hareven, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just sometimes a bit harder to work through.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

WITMonth Day 31 | All good things must (not) come to an end...

The 31st of August means that technically speaking, "Women in Translation Month" - WITMonth 2016 - has come to an end. And oh what an end.

This month has seen blog posts and reviews, recommendations and lists, interviews and stories, ideas and discussions, stats and comparisons, questions and answers, awareness and awareness and awareness.

Readers and translators from all over the world took part in some form or other, with discussions breaching the English language divide as well. Bookstores took part by hanging up WITMonth signs and displays. Translators promoted their works. Publishers offered discounts. Readers read.

If the purpose of WITMonth remains awareness - and it does - then August 2016 - WITMonth The Third - succeeded. That's the only word for it. Many readers who had never questioned their unconscious biases before now began to try to amend their own imbalanced reading. Readers who struggled to find Good-with-a-capital-G books by women in translation complained of overly long TBR lists. Bloggers discussed where WITMonth could go from here. Reviewers highlighted new and modern masterpieces.

These are victories. Clear, resounding victories. We have come together as a community and said this is a topic that needs discussing. We have pointed to worthy women writers and screamed listen to these brilliant writers. These are seemingly trivial steps, and yet they're critical for the project's continued success. They are critical for achieving the basic goals of parity and equality.

WITMonth itself is a sort of manifestation of the problem, with further isolation. However, readers are not meant to drop all their books by women in translation until next time, reading only men for the remaining eleven months of the year. On the contrary. I hope that readers will take these wonderfully expanded lists and TBR piles, and will just... continue.

Keep reading women in translation.

That's it. We know the problem exists. We have ideas as to the future. But right now the most important thing is that we continue. That we continue fighting for these too-often-ignored voices. That we continue reading those books which have been translated. That we continue to challenge the existing imbalances in translation (gender, sexuality, country of origin, etc.) and seek to fix them.

WITMonth 2016 has been beautiful and wonderful and so much more than I ever imagined it would be. But why must it be only one month?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

WITMonth Day 30 | What have we read? A list!

A cheat post today as we edge closer to the end of WITMonth... Check out the excellent list compiled by @Lillie_Langtry on Twitter to see what people have been reading/reviewing this WITMonth! While the list is incomplete in parts (some of my own non-tweeted-out reads are missing, for example!), it's a great place to start when looking for great women in translation to read, now and in the future. Happy reading!