Thursday, August 31, 2017

WITMonth Day 31 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 2)

And here it is... August 31st, come so soon. Didn't WITMonth just start the other day?

Yesterday, I posted about some personal goals. Today, I want to talk about the growth, expansion, and changes WITMonth has undergone since 2014. Four WITMonths have now come and gone. What's changed?

Every year, I gush about how much this project has grown. This has not changed; on the contrary, every year sees more readers made aware, more involved bookstores and libraries, more publshers, more organized events, and more awareness at every level of the literary world. To be perfectly honest, the project feels like it moves further and further away from me with every passing year. But it gains its own life. Does WITMonth still need me? Am I still its mother?

This has led me to some important conclusions this year: WITMonth needs a clearer infrastructure. My new @read_wit Twitter account helped in some regards, focusing explicitly on women in translation (and saving poor readers the discomfort of wading through my personal nonsense). My new @readwit Instagram account seeks to do for Instagram what we already did for Twitter - create a movement that reaches more than just the handful of readers who already know of the project.

But I have other ideas too. I received several queries for organized lists of WITMonth events, alas this does not currently exist in full form (womenintranslation.com began the effort, but there is more work to be done). There is still no comfortable place for a new reader to go to learn all they might want about WITMonth. There are still no convenient handouts or ready-to-print posters. There is still so much more we could be doing.

And this is the joy in WITMonth's growth. That while I know it is unlikely all of these things will be ready for next year, much will... and new things I can't yet envision. Here's to WITMonth 2018, and all the work ahead.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

WITMonth Day 30 | Final 2017 thoughts (part 1)

WITMonth is almost over, which means it's time to wrap things up and reach some conclusions. Or something. I'll talk about some big picture implications tomorrow, but let's talk today about the most important person in the room... me.

This year, I set myself a few rather varied WITMonth goals. One was to read more; I've had a generally poor reading year and hoped to have time to read more books. Alas, in this most basic goal I failed. Life has, simply put, gotten in the way. I read a few books during August, but not nearly as many as previous years.

In other goals, however, I succeeded fairly well. I had hoped to post daily Instagram pictures; I did. I had hoped to post daily on this blog, including reviews every other day; I did. I had hoped to write about the women in translation Reading the World project and begin posting my lists; I did.

In these regards, from a personal perspective, it's hard to view my WITMonth as anything but a rousing success. Sure, I didn't do everything I wanted to... but isn't that what the rest of the year is for?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

WITMonth Day 29 | How women in translation changed my life | Guest post

A very special WITMonth post today, from my dear sister (not twins) - the original inspiration for this blog! Thank you, Shiranne!

I’ve been a huge fan of Meytal Radzinski’s since before I could read, and I’ve been a huge fan of this blog since before it existed. (This is where I get to take credit for being the one who nudged her to open it!) I’m also a hardcore fan of WIT month, and I am proud to get to take part in this awesome project.

____________

It just so happens that the two biggest influences on reorganizing my mind and heart were women in translation.

The first and main one: Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor-turned-educator who developed the Montessori education philosophy and method back at the turn of the last century. The second woman: Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying-up consultant whose KonMari method of organizing is very fashionable at the moment.

I first heard of Maria Montessori when I was hired to teach English at an Israeli Montessori school. In a typical fashion, I fell in love with the philosophy and ended up moving to the U.S. to study to be a Montessori educator. In my training we read excerpts from Montessori’s books, detailing what she had learned about children’s learning. Montessori saw the classroom itself as the teacher, and the teacher as the guide. She watched children pursuing their own innate passions and learning in a happier and healthier way than children learning in the mainstream (somewhat assembly-line-esque) education system. Montessori believed very strongly in the idea that your environment can shape you, and that if we created the right environment, then the children would learn happily and naturally. Three and a half years after first being introduced to Montessori, I am still likely to go on a half hour tangent whenever somebody asks me to explain what it is.

During the same summer of my training, I had also come across a book titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Americans, collectors of all things useless, seemed to be obsessed with this book, and knowing that I too have a tendency towards hoarding I thought I might as well give it a read. Kondo’s book transformed my perspective towards every item that I owned. From being a person who had trouble throwing away old shampoo bottles, I was suddenly able to give away clothes that had been sitting my closet for 10 years. The key to Kondo’s method (called the “KonMari” method) is simple: declutter by focusing on the things that truly give you joy. Whatever doesn’t give you the right level of joy (measured naturally by comparing to the things that give you the most joy) - thank it, and let it go.


Both of these women have helped me recognize the importance of having an organized environment in my home and workplace. It doesn’t mean I’m always able to stick to it since I imagine I will always be a naturally messy person, but it does mean that I see the value in putting effort into creating the world that I want, in every aspect of my life. It can also mean looking at my relationships (of all sorts) as something that I work on, or looking at the country I live in and figuring out how I can work on making it better. It can mean trying to see opportunities for growth in everything around me. For me, it was a huge shift in my philosophy, and I have two women in translation to thank for it.

Wishing a happy and meaningful end of WIT month to you all!

Monday, August 28, 2017

WITMonth Day 28 | In brief

Still traveling and with limited internet, so instead of writing a thoughtful post today, I'm going to briefly mention some fun things readers can do to wrap up WITMonth:

  • Catch up on the Twitter tag (or @read_wit)! Tons of great reading material, reviews, recommendations and more.
  • Check out my @readwit Instagram feed (yes, I now have an Instagram...).
  • Buy some great books by women in translation from your local indie bookstores! Especially any that might have a WITMonth display - have what to read for the next year, until WITMonth 2018...
  • Make a map of the countries you've visited this WITMonth or year! These maps are super fun to make and are a great way to keep track of where your reading has taken you.
That's all for now, folks, now back to reading!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WITMonth Day 27 | "And the Bride Closed the Door" by Ronit Matalon

It's been a whole, long WITMonth... and I haven't spoken about an Israeli writer yet. Let's talk a bit about Ronit Matalon, shall we? Bit really... only a bit.

See, I first encountered Ronit Matalon with The Sound of Their Steps, which came strongly recommended by a bookseller. I... didn't love it, mostly for the style, but it was undoubtedly good literature. Fast forward a few years, and And the Bride Closed the Door comes out. It is short, crisp, and good. Subtly political. Wholly personal. Emotionally engagimg. Quietly revolutionary. This is a novella that has a little bit of everything to it, in mostly the right amounts (a few jokes about a clearly queer cousin fall very flat) - a bride who abruptly announces that she's not getting married (day of), family trauma, love, obligation, poetry and more.

My favorite part is the balance between personal and political. Unlike The Soumd of Their Steps, in which the politics felt very direct, here they sneak in gently, while tackling similar themes of class and ethnicity. The difference in length also makes a difference, with And the Bride Closed the Door raising more issues than it claims to solve.

I promised a brief review, so here it is: Here is a novella that well deserves a home in English (and other languages). Remember it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

WITMonth Day 26 | Thoughts on literary magazines

Today, I finally got around to reading PEN America's Glossolalia Vol. 2, Women Writing Brazil. It's the first time I've ever read a literary magazine or chapbook, at least all the way through. Honestly, I liked it a lot. It had a lot of the strong sides of an anthology, but felt looser and more flexible - stories alongside nonfiction alongside poetry. Even a small glimpse of a photography portfolio. It's a good collection, overall, and I can genuinely recommend it.

But this isn't a review of that book. Instead, I want to (briefly) talk about how literary magazines end up filling in a lot of the blanks that standard, full-length-book publishing often misses. I've talked about anthologies (manthologies!) before, where I've found the general lack of women writers in "generic" anthologies to be lacking (like in publishing at large). The situation seems a little clearer with literary magazines, in which the turnover is higher, faster, and presumably more responsive to the times. Why shouldn't literary magazines be the first to take a step forward?

Sources like VIDA indicate that the situation isn't so great in most magazines. Indeed, I imagine if I were to go through the prominent literary magazines that focus on international literature, I would find a mixed bag. But. I also know that there's a lot of good being done. Like Women Writing Brazil. Like Words Without Borders, which breaks boundaries in all directions. Others I'm probably not aware of.

I don't read many magazines, though I'm thinking I should. There's clearly a lot that I'm missing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

WITMonth Day 25 | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

You know what's always fun? Fantasy that isn't based on European medieval conventions!

This is a personal pet peeve of mine: I loathe the way almost all modern fantasy is not only English-language (including out in other countries, where it's predominantly translated from English) and rooted in British/European mythology and cultural norms. Often, the foreigners will be dark-skinned or have almond-eyes, will be either savage or vaguely wiser than the protagonists (depending on whether the book was written more than twenty years ago, or whether it's recent and progressive). The mythology will vaguely resemble Greek or maybe Norse or maybe even Celtic mythology. It's all very similar.

So whenever I encounter a book - whether Anglo in origin or not - that comes from a culture that is not European, I cheer. I am automatically in love with the book, just a little. And oh boy, does The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc (translated by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar) fulfill that wish, even if it doesn't always rise to its own ambitions.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Days of the Deer a lot, but I'm not sure that it always lives up to its own promise. Here is a fantasy novel that reimagines a land that is very clearly meant to be the Americas, before the European invasion. From the first moment, Bodoc reimagines the Americas and its diverse peoples as a variety of mostly separate tribes or creatures. In the far south, we have our protagonists, the Husihuilkes of the Ends of the Earth. We have the descendents of the Northmen, who have lighter skin and red hair (...Vikings. They're descendents of Vikings.). We have loud, jangling, bright culture in the center of the continent (Mexico?). And these exist alongside more magical creatures, like the Lukus and the Owl Clan.

A fleet of foreigners are crossing the sea. Are they invaders? Are they the Northmen, returned to reunite with their people? Are they the representation of pure evil that this fantasy world has? The book isn't especially subtle in framing this fleet as the European invasion of the Americas. Except in Bodoc's world, things play out a little differently. Here, a group of magical Astronomers are aware that the fleet is coming and have time to prepare - or at least, to figure out what to do. And this is where The Days of the Deer begins, with Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes summoned to represent his people in figuring out what's going to happen.

Curiously, The Days of the Deer follows a very different story from what I was expecting. Its opening suggests a longer type of quest than what plays out, as well as a predictable climax that didn't end up happening. Instead, The Days of the Deer contains some genuine plot twists and unusual stylistic conventions. Bodoc never seems to go for the easy route, and indeed there are plot threads that open and close at all points of the novel. It's so different from most fantasy books, that while it might seem a bit jarring, it's also remarkably refreshing. It's not always perfect pacing, but it somehow works nicely to create a solid flow. It just doesn't always seem to take advantage of the world that it's built. Bodoc's focus is so strongly on plot developments, that she doesn't stop to enjoy the surprisingly rich treasure chest of culture, history, and myth that is available to her.

I have one main critique of the book: the writing. I always struggle to critique writing in translation, since I hate to pin blame on translators. Yet with The Days of the Deer, there was always a sense of aloofness in the writing that didn't quite vibe with the genre. Different genres have very different writing conventions for what is aloof, casual, or appropriate, and The Days of the Deer felt like it wasn't quite aware of these conventions within English. This, I imagine, is something that can stumble in translation, particularly if the translators are more used to strictly literary (or Literary) texts, as appears to be the case. This means that the story always felt like it was just slightly out of sync, though this is not so severe that it hinders the story altogether.

The second main problem I had is one unrelated to the book itself, but rather to the publishers... While The Days of the Deer has an internally closed ending (no cliffhangers, thank goodness!), it does leave quite a few loose threads that are, I imagine, meant to be picked up in the sequels. However... while The Days of the Deer was translated in 2013, there does not appear to be any intention of translating and publishing its sequels in English. Alas.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

WITMonth Day 24 | An unhappy observation

One of the primary reasons WITMonth exists is in order to give voice to women writers in translation who are too often sidelined. WITMonth is in direct response to the stunningly low rate of translations of works by women. It is in direct response to the dismal rate of review of books by women in translation. It is in direct response to the global dismissal of works by women who write in languages other than English.

I don't expect everyone to know about WITMonth. I don't expect everyone who does know about WITMonth to necessarily only read/talk about women in translation during August. But I frequently find myself a little... shall we say miffed? Miffed at the way in which anything that is not directly related to women in translation during WITMonth is often intentionally overwhelmingly skewed towards being about men.

Take, for example, publishers who choose to interpret WITMonth as a means to promote their women translators. While that's not what WITMonth was intended to do, I recognize that the more the project spreads, the less control I can have of what it means to others. That's fine! But I'm repeatedly amused - and then rather annoyed - by publishers who will highlight a certain translator only with books by men. Behold this wonderful translator! Behold four or five or six books that she has translated! Oh, yeah, I suppose they're all by men, but who cares!

If I sound cynical, it's because I've seen this a few times in the WITMonth tag. I do not share these posts, on principle.

Again: I'm not going to tell people how to recognize WITMonth (I can really only speak for myself...). But I do find it frustrating that the default - the moment people aren't explicitly talking about women in translation - is men. A list of new releases in translation for August? 80% men. A list of "10 Best Translated Fiction" from the past year? Only one woman writer. And so on and so on.

The problem isn't that men writers are getting attention. I don't expect August to be a full month devoid of men. I don't believe in that, frankly, and have myself read men in translation during previous WITMonths. I also recognize that women writers are getting so much more attention in August than they would be otherwise, and that is absolutely amazing. The problem is that otherwise, women are always in the background. At the very least, can't we just have August be even? Can't we have just one month in which women represent - and I know this is wacky, but give me a chance here - half of the books that we talk about?

Hmm, maybe that's just too much to ask...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WITMonth Day 23 | Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I mentioned three titles in my post about nonfiction a few days ago, and that two of those books have already been reviewed this WITMonth. Well, it's now time to review the third: Ece Temelkuran's Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (tr. Zeynep Beler).

Turkey... Turkey was something a bit different. Unlike Cockroaches which is a phenomenal book, period, I can't claim that Turkey is a great book overall. It's definitely very good, don't get me wrong, but it drags in parts and rambles in others and sometimes seems to lose its own way a bit. It's also, importantly, not a memoir. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy seeks to introduce readers to a broadly sketched Turkey. For me - a reader who has read only two or so Turkish books, and all novels - Temelkuran's sharp approach felt revelatory. It was a true learning experience, especially in portions where Temelkuran was clearly speaking to the non-Turkish reader.

It was also (like with The Queue) a remarkably familiar narrative. As I fell deeper into contemporary Turkish political drama, I found myself shuddering with the realization that these exact same things were being repeated elsewhere in the world (specifically Israel, but portions felt reminiscent of the US as well). The book was thus also more than just an education on modern Turkish politics, it was also an eye-opening warning about how easily totalitarianism can take over. Especially since I was reading the book shortly after Erdoğan's referendum on presidential power passed, and I could see how Temelkuran - who obviously did not know of this referendum while writing the book, since it was a few years in the future - anticipated it.

Reading books like Turkey can be chilling, uncomfortable experiences. It's not exactly enjoyable, nor is the educational aspect as fulfilling as a strictly historical text might be. Yet this type of nonfiction serves an important purpose in providing readers with a context for contemporary events. In this regard, Turkey is doubly unique, as it is not written in the form of isolated essays. It's a cohesive book, even if imperfect at times in its pacing.

Turkey is mainly two things, though: It's sharp, and it's thoughtful. My edition's cover has a single blurb "Engrossing and intimate", and honestly it's both of those things. Its politics - its clarity in its politics - is certainly sharp and engrossing, to-the-point while hardly skimping on information. Meanwhile, Temelkuran's personal anecdotes and loving portrayal of her flawed homeland (a tone I could 100% relate to, for the record) provide a thoughtful and intimate environment. Temelkuran makes sure that her messy Turkey becomes our fascinating, timely, and eye-opening Turkey.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

WITMonth Day 22 | Reading the world challenge (part 2)

Announcing the project is great and all, but what about the books I hope to read? Reminder: Not every country is represented by a full-length book, nor is every country or language represented. If nothing else, this is a partial list. For poems or short stories available online, I've included the site at which the work may be read.

So here's the first part of my work-in-progress "Reading the world in women in translation" list! Countries A-C...

Note: Obviously please let me know of any noticeable errors in this list! Also, feel free to chime in with your own personal recommendations for a certain country/language! Your recommendations are worth more than my own random, eclectic collection. Especially since enough of the titles here are either out of print or difficult to track down, any recommendations for the more off-the-beaten-track languages would be much appreciated!

Note the second: Due to an oversight in my own record-keeping, this list will currently be without translator credits. However, as I mark each book off my list and review them, translators will obviously get their due credit! Apologies for now.


  • Afghanistan (Dari): Zahra Hosseinzadeh - Poem (WWB)
  • Afghanistan (Pashto): Parvin Faiz Zadah Malal - "Hate" (WWB)
  • Albania (Albanian): Luljeta Lleshanaku - Child of Nature
  • Algeria (French): Assia Djebar - Women of Algiers in Their Apartment
  • Algeria (Arabic): Ahlam Mosteghanemi - Memory in the Flesh
  • Angola (Portuguese): Ana Paula Tavares - Poem (WWB)
  • Argentina (Spanish): Silvina Ocampo - Thus Were Their Faces
  • Armenia (Armenian): Yessayan Zabel - The Gardens of Silihdar
  • Armenia (Russian): Mariam Petrosyan - The Gray House
  • Australia (Nyulnyul): Mary Charles - Winin: Why the Emu Cannot Fly
  • Austria (German): Adelheid Popp - The Autobiography of a Working Woman
  • Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani): Afag Masug - Short stories 
  • Bahrain (Arabic): Hamda Khamis - Poems (from Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry)
  • Bangladesh (Bengali): Begum Rokeya - Sultana's Dream
  • Belarus (Russian): Svetlana Alexievich - Voices from Chernobyl
  • Belgium (French): Madeleine Bourdouxhe - La Femme de Gilles
  • Belgium (Dutch): Chika Unigwe - On Black Sisters' Street
  • Benin - Women Writing Africa Vol. 2
  • Bhutan - MISSING
  • Bolivia (Spanish): Liliana Colanzi - Our Dead World
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina - MISSING
  • Botswana - Women Writing Africa Vol. 1
  • Brazil (Portuguese): Various - Passages: Women Writing Brazil
  • Brunei - MISSING
  • Bulgaria (Bulgarian): Elisaveta Bagriana - Penelope of the Twentieth Century
  • Burkina Faso - Women Writing Africa Vol. 2
  • Burindi - MISSING
  • Cambodia - MISSING
  • Cameroon (French): Werewere Liking - The Amputated Memory
  • Canada (French): Naomi Fontaine - Kuessipan
  • Cape Verde (Portuguese): Orlanda Amarilis - "Nina" (x)
  • Central African Republic - MISSING
  • Chad - MISSING
  • Chile (Spanish): Gabriela Mistral - Selected Works
  • China (Chinese): Can Xue - Frontier
  • Colombia (Spanish): Carolina Sanín - The Children
  • Comoros - MISSING
  • Democratic Republic of Congo - MISSING
  • Republic of Congo - MISSING
  • Costa Rica (Spanish): Tatiana Lobo - Assault on Paradise
  • Croatia (Croatian): Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić - Croatian Tales of Long Ago
  • Cuba (Spanish): Daína Chaviano - The Island of Eternal Love
  • Cyprus (Greek): Myrto Azina Chronides - The Experiment
  • Czechia (Czech): Petra Hůlová - All This Belongs to Me

That's all for today, folks, meet you back in a few days to explore countries D-H! Again, please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments or on Twitter. The more the merrier!


Monday, August 21, 2017

WITMonth Day 21 | Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

It's time to talk about what is probably the best book I've read in the past year: Cockroaches.

I haven't gotten around to reviewing Scholastique Mukasonga's novel Our Lady of the Nile yet, but in a sentence: I liked it enough that I bought Cockroaches (translated by Jordan Stump) soon after it came out. Our Lady of the Nile was the first book I'd ever read specifically about Rwanda, and I finished it feeling like I had learned a lot. It's a book that shrinks the Rwandan genocide down to a small scale, displaces it, and blurs it somewhat. It was an insightful, powerful novel. How wrong I was to think I understood anything.

Cockroaches.

I grimaced at the title. I loathe cockroaches. Silly as it sounds, I felt like the book was warning me somehow. Bad content here. Stay away. A warning that had little to do, it turns out, with cockroaches, and significantly more to do with the strikingly clean descriptions of utterly horrific events. This isn't surprising, of course. Cockroaches isn't about the bugs, it's about the humans that other humans deem lower than the lowest creature - simply cockroaches. It's about how humans strip other humans of their humanity and how they use this to justify genocide.

Prior to Cockroaches, the only other story I had ever encountered about Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide was Mukasonga's previously published Our Lady of the Nile. That's it. I had heard stories from family members who had been to Rwanda; one described the memorial museum as "a Holocaust museum, but with Tutsis instead of Jews". I kept thinking of that while reading Cockroaches. Pieces of the memoir felt so familiar, reminders of every Holocaust story I'd encountered in my childhood (and adulthood...), yet this is also very clearly the story of a completely different genocide.

Or rather, I should note, this isn't quite the story of the Rwandan genocide itself as much as it's the story of how Rwanda became a country in which the 1994 genocide could even occur. Mukasonga makes clear from the very first page of the memoir that her survival is the exception: The book opens with a painful dedication to all those who lost their lives and their families, and to "the few who have the sorrow of surviving". In my view, this is the line that captures the essence of Cockroaches. This is a beautifully written book that uses simple, clear writing while conveying a terrible, painful, and gut-wrenching reality.

There's more to it, of course. Mukasonga gives voice to her lost family, but she also builds an entire world around them. Mukasonga never lets the reader forget that the genocide - which technically occurred in 1994 - begins much earlier, with a series of smaller events and horrors. Genocide never occurs in a day. What begins as forced relocation turns into total extermination. First certain individuals. Later, everyone. The elderly. Children. Babies.

Cockroaches is not an easy book. It's short, yes, and Mukasonga writes simply. It's the sort of book you can read through within a few hours, but this is far from a quick, breezy read. This is a book that enters your soul. It feels like a cockroach has crawled under your skin, itching and burning as it burrows into you. It's personal, but not manipulative in its emotions. Mukasonga's survival sorrow rings powerfully, such that I cannot imagine a reader leaving this book unmoved. For this granddaughter of Holocaust survivors (and great-granddaughter, -niece, -cousin, etc. of Holocaust victims), the book felt like a necessary awakening to learn more about those horrors that I haven't been exposed to as much. It felt like an education. And it felt like a painful reminder of how absolutely easy it is for humanity to fail, and fail again.

To quote Mukasonga: "I wish I could write this page with my tears."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

WITMonth Day 20 | The importance of nonfiction

I've always loved nonfiction, though it's been sidelined in my reading for several years. As a kid, I used to devour heavy historical tomes or manuscripts. I loved reading political commentary, biographies, essays, and scientific texts. I used to read a lot more nonfiction than I do today (excluding the mass of scientific papers I read for work, which would add up to more than all literature I currently read if counted...).

Certainly, I can't say I've read all that much work by women in translation.

Now as an important disclaimer, I'll note that I've read very little nonfiction by men in translation either. But I can't pretend that I'm not painfully aware of how little nonfictional works by women in translation are translated. One need only glance over university press catalogs such as Columbia University Press (in which only one of seven recently released titles in translation is by a woman) or Harvard University Press (in which two out of fifteen titles in the Spring/Summer 2017 catalog were by women writers) to realize that an even more extreme gap between men and women in translation exists in the academic world of nonfiction texts than in fiction (and I'll note that the single title by a woman in translation from CUP is actually a novel; books by men are divided).

I've previously talked about why I find university presses to be important gatekeepers, but those stats specifically referred to fiction. When it comes to nonfiction, with an even wider gap, I find myself increasingly frustrated. Translated nonfiction is already such a minor subset. It can span basically whatever topics and fields you want, since nobody really has any expectation that you translate certain books above others (because let's be real - nonfiction published by university presses has a very specific target audience in mind). There is no real motivation to publish a new-new-new-new translation of those most masculine Greek classics, nor to specifically publish that one guy's treatise on European fascism. Yet somehow the strong bias in favor of men writers exists.

Nonfiction is important. Academic texts are important. Not simply as just "another" parameter, but also because nonfiction covers a huge spectrum of the human experience. Take, for example, the three nonfiction titles by women in translation I have read thus far in 2017: Scholastique Mukasonga's powerful memoir Cockroaches, Ece Temelkuran's thoughtful and politically sharp Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, and Ève Curie's unique biography of her mother Marie. Each book covers a different piece of the nonfiction spectrum, though all three are certainly more on the literary side of things (than the academic). And I'm still in the midst of reading Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, an utterly unique oral history of that horrific event.

Yet alongside these titles, I've come across so many books in the past year by early feminist scholars that have never been translated. Books by queer Latin American feminist analyzing their identities. Books by historians, scientists, researchers, and academics. Books that crop up when you sift through Wikipedia, author by author, but have yet to find a home in English (or many other languages, for that matter). Instead, nonfiction in translation (itself too tiny a field) remains steadfastly male, and predominantly European. This should change.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

WITMonth Day 19 | Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

I think there's a level on which I wanted to like Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay's Panty (tr. Arunava Sinha) a lot more than I did. Not that I disliked the book, nor that I had a negatively tinged apathy towards it like with Our Dead World. In general, I thought the book was fairly good, and I generally enjoyed it. It's also not the sort of book that I can accuse of being utterly forgettable, since it has successfully lingered in my consciousness since I read it several months ago.

No, instead of concrete sorts of frustration, the truth is simply that I drew a certain image of Panty in the mind that ended up being far from the truth. I expected something tighter and more explicit, and instead got a very different sort of story.

Panty - the first novel published by WITMonth friends Tilted Axis Press - is very much that surreal, hazy short novel that has become so popular within the translated literature community in recent years. The book is a vague, deliberately confusing mish-mash of experiences, overlayed with quiet reflections on sexuality, art, and independence. It's a uniquely written text, certainly, with alternating styles and perspectives that blur the lines between characters, reality, and imagination.

This is also a style that can work really well, honestly, but in my experience needs to come with a strong central hook in order to successfully carry the story. Here Panty (like so many other books of this sort, in my opinion) stumbles a little bit - but only a little. While the narrator's voice is deeply compelling, she doesn't quite dominate emotionally. The blurriness - alongside the sort of fuzziness she herself describes - keeps her from emerging as a definitive anchor. Not that she doesn't have an emotional pull. Panty is definitely a lot better in this regard than most other novellas of its class, since the narrator does have a clear personality. She has a loose plot (though it is somewhat sidelined) and she has a presence even when she's not the primary voice (since she colors the accompanying narratives as well).

And so I wasn't sure how quite to classify Panty. It's a very well-written novella, and I liked it. It left a mark on me, even months after setting it aside (certain images and scenes were particularly memorable and powerfully formed). It also, however, employed a literary technique that is a little less than my favorite (vagueness does not equal complexity!), and I find myself wondering how much stronger a story it could have been had a few threads been tied together just a bit more tightly. But that, of course, is personal taste. Overall, Panty is certainly worth your time. But with that single caveat - surreal doesn't work for every reader...

Friday, August 18, 2017

WITMonth Day 18 | Politics

I've been thinking about politics lately.

This shouldn't be especially surprising; the global political climate is tense and I've always been fascinated by politics. The difference is that lately I've been thinking about the politics of identity, the politics of defined identities, and questions regarding the political nature of any works by marginalized artists. These topics aren't new, and others far wiser than me have already explored them far better than I'll ever be able to.

Nonetheless, I found myself thinking about these topics in the context of women in translation, spinning off from the thought that I formalized aloud (for the first time, for the record) in my talk with Aviya Kushner at The Forward, wondering about the politics of authors translated into English based on my experiences with Israeli writers. As a bilingual reader, I am very well aware of the biases that make their way into translations, the narratives that get pushed through mere framing. These don't have to be inherently negative nor that there is something wrong in highlighting authors who represent certain views, but there are specific biases that are useful in creating a specific narrative. In this case, there is significantly more interest in "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" as a constructed concept than there is in dozens of other diverse, populated countries (I won't get into the why of this right now...). A narrative is formed.

When it comes to Israel (my personal, familiar case study), my observation has long been that when men write about families touched by political circumstances, their books get labeled as political (see: David Grossman's intimate-yet-political To the End of the Land). When women write about similar themes, their books are viewed through a purely domestic lens. Thus Israeli women have, for example, written many books that subtly and quietly examine the ethnic and racial dynamics in Israel without getting the same attention and fame that the loudly POLITICAL (TM) Grossman or Amos Oz might get. Lea Aini may write about the effects of war, yet her novels remain untranslated. Or Ronit Matalon, who writes about the dynamics between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, whose novel The Sound of Our Steps was translated into English a full seven years after its much-acclaimed publication in Israel. (A notable exception is Dorit Rabinyan, whose novel All the Rivers was swiftly translated after a widely publicized controversy regarding its non-inclusion in the Israeli high-school curriculum.)

This, of course, is all just one country, but it makes me wonder about the rest of the world. Certainly, I have noticed that there are certain political biases in many of the books I read in translation. Indeed, one need only look at the odd prevalence of books by women who are breaking free of oppressive and sexist "other" societies. Or even the way almost all women writers need to have the disclaimer regarding their gender: "Best Latin American woman writer!" Again, this does not mean that these political biases are inherently bad - most of them are pretty great, to be honest! I'm totally fine with a bias in favor of feminist literature, for instance. Bias doesn't mean bad.

But we need to recognize the politics at play. We need to recognize the way that these political biases - a bias towards what we deem to be explicitly political texts - is erasing a lot of radical, powerful writing, particularly by women. Women writing under oppressive conditions - regardless how they address those conditions - are being political. Translating these women is inherently political. Even women from "Western" backgrounds, writing simple historical romances are engaging in a political act. Women's existence in public spaces is still insecure, and should not be taken for granted.

As always, we must try to be aware of our biases. If we're favoring men writers because of how we wish to frame certain political narratives (Israel is only one example of many, obviously), we need to recognize that bias in interpreting politics. If we're romanticizing a certain "type" of woman over another because it fits with a savior-like mentality, we need to recognize that bias too. There may always remain some degree of bias, but we should at least recognize it for what it is.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WITMonth Day 17 | Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi

To be perfectly honest, I was mostly drawn to Liliana Colanzi's Our Dead World (tr. Jessica Sequeira) because of Colanzi origins. As I was compiling my Reading the World list, I struggled to find any titles for Bolivia. Helpful Twitter readers instantly pointed me towards this (then-forthcoming) title, and I immediately added it to my reading lists.

I had a gut feeling before reading this slim short story collection, however, that it wouldn't be entirely to my taste. The summary on the back highlighted the oddness of the stories, but I have found in recent months that I'm less interested in "weird" stories. Or rather, if the stories need to stray off the beaten track, I like to have a sense of cohesion within them and a strong sense of character. Some books do rather well at casting that "weird" spell while remaining grounded in an emotional connection... Our Dead World a little less so, and I left the book feeling generally empty. Not disappointed, exactly, nor especially frustrated. Just feeling like the book hadn't managed to leave any mark on me.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps I simply read the book at the wrong time, over a weekend in which most of my time was spent stressing out about my future and things far beyond my control. Perhaps I simply didn't give the book the space that it deserved. Even so, now as I flip through the stories, I find that only one out of the eight has managed to linger in my memory, less than a week after reading the entire collection. Most of the stories in Our Dead World felt like clever little exercises: curious premises that twisted and spun around, but didn't spend too long on their characters.

But longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm rarely impressed by books of this sort. In fact, this has colored my impression of almost all single-author short story collections that I've read in the past few years. I love short stories as a form, but I often find myself bored or disappointed by collections from the same author. Here, the problem was less an author's uniform style (the "variations on a theme" problem, as I like to call it), but a uniform lack of opportunities for the reader to form emotional connections with the characters. The stories instead are brief, cool, and detached - something I am sure appeals to many readers, but not to me.