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!

Monday, August 29, 2016

WITMonth Day 29 | Genres | A short interlude

WITMonth 2016 is almost over and there will be plenty of discussions to be had later as well, but before we go... a brief thought on genres. I love seeing all the books people have chosen to read for WITMonth and I love seeing how very different many of them are. But... I cannot help but notice how most of us have remained comfortably within the world of simple fiction.

I don't for a moment want to take away from those readers who have spent the past month championing SF women in translation or historical fiction by women in translation or poetry by women in translation or plays by women in translation. On the contrary, you're all wonderful. It's just that I once again look back on a WITMonth that - despite being the most active and successful month by far of the past three years! - remained generally cloistered within a certain community.

Like I've said before and will say again - the women in translation project is meant to be as broad as possible. That means it's meant to cover as many possible languages and as many possible genres and as many possible readers as possible. I love the progress we've made on the first front... what about the next?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

WITMonth Day 28 | Subtly Worded - Teffi | Review

Short story collections are always a bit problematic. There's a huge difference between collections written as single entities, collections curated from an author's body of work, or collections compiled from different authors (particularly when not written with a specific theme in mind).

Any collection that isn't written ahead of time as a single book often stumbles a bit in my opinion. I have a hard time sticking with the stories, since it often feels like there isn't much of a motivation to read through the collection at once. That was only half true of Teffi's Subtly Worded. On the one hand, Teffi's style is clean and consistent, calmly guiding the reader from one story to another. On the other hand, the stories span so many years that it's a little difficult to read them as one cohesive unit. (I also wasn't entirely clear on how much the translator impacted matters, since while the collection is mostly translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler [from what I could gather...], there were many translators credited and a few stories that felt a bit out of place did in fact turn out to be translated by other translators.)

I'd seen so many positive reviews of Subtly Worded that I came in slightly skeptical as to whether the book would actually be as charming as presented. I'm not sure how I came away. I really enjoyed Teffi's quietly humorous style in some of the stories, and found that the shorter pieces worked really well. But many of the longer stories lost me (particularly the Rasputin story, which was clearly supposed to be a standout sort of tale and most readers seemed to love yet thoroughly bored me).

The collection is sweet in parts, entertaining in others, funny at times and sadly melancholic in others. And it generally flows well. This isn't the sort of collection you start and stop every other story. It's also the sort of collection that makes me confident in Teffi as a writer, and intrigued enough to continue seeking out her works. I'm not sure I loved this collection as much as others, but it was pleasant enough (I really only skipped a few stories) and some of the stories were downright excellent. A pretty good balance for a short story collection, I'd say.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

WITMonth Day 27 | The Man Who Snapped His Fingers - Fariba Hachtroudi | Review

Let me just start by saying that you should read The Man Who Snapped His Fingers. It's a good book. It's an interesting book. It has flashes of depth that it doesn't always explore fully, but there's enough to contemplate here and to learn from.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers translated by the excellent Alison Anderson is the sort of novel that catches you just a bit off guard. The flap - once again - does the book a slight disservice, almost trivializing the novel to that of a relationship that isn't exactly as described. So I came into the novel expecting a flatter sort of story, and was instantly hooked by a completely different sort of narrative.

And when I say hooked, I mean hooked.

The story is almost hypnotic in how it pulses, tugs and draws the reader along. The writing is mostly conversational, often direct in its pleas and presentations. There is an urgency in the way the Colonel relates his story, his anxiety, his unhappiness, his love. Compare this with the equally tense but far less dramatic narration from Vima, whose struggles seem all too close. This is the sort of writing that doesn't release you until you're done, and luckily the book isn't too long so as to inconvenience. (I would even go so far as to say that the book felt like it was at exactly the right length, with excellent pacing.)

The alternating narration bothered me less than I expected, because the shift is relatively gradual. First we have the somewhat incoherent ramblings of the Colonel, as he describes his life as a not-yet-refugee (and all the issues it entails...) and the unclear pieces of his past life. The book does not progress chronologically at any point, with narratives refreshed at different points in the novel from different perspectives. It makes The Man Who Snapped His Fingers perhaps a little less straight-forward than it could have been (and perhaps a bit too "loopy"), but the effect is one of a much longer novel, and one with a lasting impact.

All this without having addressed the politics. And The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is full of politics - the politics of love, the politics of refugees, the politics of oppressive regimes, the politics of gender, the politics of propaganda, the politics of manipulation - without ever feeling like it's especially overwhelming. These issues are at the forefront, but not exhausting. They're intriguing and thought-provoking, without weighing down the emotional core of the novel.

And the emotional core itself is political as well. Is it possible to forgive your torturers? Is it possible to forgive yourself? What does a love story look like from the other angle? What happens at the end of a political love story? The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is not exactly a love story, yet it thrums like one and spoke to me on an emotional level not unlike a very different sort of story.

I liked The Man Who Snapped His Fingers a lot. It was a hypnotic read, entrancing and engaging. I found myself thinking about it a lot in the days after reading it. This is definitely one of those WITMonth books I'm glad to have read, and can comfortably recommend onward.

Friday, August 26, 2016

WITMonth Day 26 | Another (less short) interlude

WITMonth is a lot about reading books, but it can also be about reading reviews, stats posts, ideas, and essays! So here are a few more links of cool things I've spotted throughout WITMonth. As always, I'm unable to link to every single wonderful post or blogger or outlet. But that doesn't make your content any less amazing!

Some cool things to check out, read and explore:

As always, I know I'm forgetting so much excellent WITMonth content... but here's just a taste. There were also lots of great giveaways, photos, tweets, recommendations and lists floating around! It is well worth going through the #WITMonth tag on Twitter, in my opinion, and scouting around for excellent books. Your TBR will come away far richer for it.

We still have a few more days of WITMonth, but that doesn't mean our work is done! More to come...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

WITMonth Day 25 | Plans for future reading

Anyone who's followed this blog for a couple years will likely know one important fact about me: I cannot stick to a reading plan.

So yeah. I didn't read most of the books I thought I'd be reading during WITMonth. I read other books and will read others still, with even moe books prepped for the future. Will I read these books in the next hear? Who knows? But here are some books I've been recommended or randomly found of am just excited about:

  • Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdótti (translated by Brian FitzGibbon). This was recommended to me by a friend last year, actually, and I picked it up at a bargain the other day!
  • History by Elsa Morante (translated by William Weaver). This is one of those classics that's been on my radar for too long, and I finally just decided: I'm buying it, I'm reading it, good day.
  • The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane (translated by David Brookshaw). This is one of those books that's cropped up a lot in WITMonth lists this year. I saw it at the bookstore and it just felt right, so... Really looking forward to it!
  • In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Ann Goldstein). This feels like an important one to explore.
  • The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette). The hype has convinced me, and I'm excited.
  • Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump). I mean, this one was always going to be on the list. I haven't loved everything I've read by NDiaye, but her writing is always so interesting.
  • Fish in a Dwindling Lake by Ambai (translated by Lakshmi Holmström). I'm still trying to expand my horizons more when it comes to Southeast Asia and India in particular, and this was one of the few titles I was able to track down via my digital library! Looking forward to finding as many more as possible.
  • Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). This is on my list. Quite obviously. I don't even need to explain this.
...and there are so many other books that look amazing from people's wonderful reviews. From wonderful write-ups. From wonderful lists. Or photos or references or just random ideas tossed around. It's been amazing to watch, but I can hear my already-overflowing bookshelves sobbing before I present them with all these new and diverse books I can't wait to read.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?



*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?