Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading the world challenge (part 3)

I've already begun to make progress on my reading... yet haven't finished publishing the titles I hope to read! Here are a few more (of which I've already actually managed to read a couple!):

  • Denmark (Danish): Suzanne Brøgger - The Jade Cat
  • Djibouti - MISSING
  • Dominican Republic (Spanish): Various - Praises and Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic
  • East Timor - MISSING
  • Ecaudor (Spanish): Luz Argentina Chiriboga - On Friday Night
  • Egypt (Arabic): Nawal El Saadawi - Woman at Point Zero
  • El Salvador (Spanish): Claribel Alegría - Woman of the River
  • Equatorial Guinea (Spanish): Trifonia Melibea Obono - La Bastarda
  • Eritrea (Tigrinya): Haregu Keleta - "The Girl Who Carried a Gun" (x)
  • Estonia (Estonian): Kristiina Ehin - Walker on Water
  • Ethiopia (Italian): Gabriella Ghermandi - Queen of Flowers and Pearls
  • Ethiopia (Amharic) - MISSING
  • Finland (Finnish): Eeva-Liisa Manner - Girl Upon Heaven's Pier
  • France (French/Old French): Various - French Women Poets of Nine Centuries
  • Gabon (French): Angèle Rawiri - The Fury and Cries of Women
  • Georgia (Georgian): Various - A House with No Doors
  • Germany (German): Yoko Tawada - Memoirs of a Polar Bear
  • Greece (Greek): Penelope Delta - A Tale Without a Name
  • Guatemala (Spanish): Rigoberta Menchú - I, Rigoberta Menchú
  • Guinea - MISSING
  • Guinea-Bissau - MISSING
  • Haiti (French): Marie Vieux-Chavet - Dance on the Volcano
  • Honduras (Spanish): Clementina Suárez - Clementina Suárez: Her Life and Poetry
  • Hungary (Hungarian): Magda Szabó - The Door
  • Iceland (Icelandic): Ragna Sigurðardóttir - The Perfect Landscape
  • India (Assamese): Arupa Patangia Kalita - Written in Tears
  • India (Bengali): Leela Majumdar - The Burmese Box
  • India (Gujarati): Dhiruben Patel - Rainbow at Noon
  • India (Hindi): Geetanjali Shree - The Empty Space
  • India (Kannada): Mamta Sagar - Hide and Seek: Selected Poems
  • India (Old Kannada): Akka Mahadevi - Songs for Siva
  • India (Malayalam): K. R. Meera - Hangwoman
  • India (Marathi): Shanta Gokhale - Crowfall
  • India (Odia): Susmita Bagchi - Children of a Better God
  • India (Pali): Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
  • India (Punjabi): MISSING
  • India (Tamil): Amai - In a Forest, a Deer
  • India (Urdu): Qurratulain Hyder - River of Fire
  • Indonesia (Indonesian): Okky Madasari - The Years of the Voiceless
  • Iran (Persian): Parinous Saniee - The Book of Fate
  • Iraq (Arabic): Dunya Mikhail - The War Works Hard
  • Ireland (Irish): Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh - The Coast Road
  • Israel (Hebrew): Leah Goldberg - Poems
  • Italy (Italian): Margaret Mazzantini - Twice Born
  • Ivory Coast (French): Véronique Tadjo - The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda
That's it for now, still working on finalizing the list. As you can see, still many titles missing... still many places where I feel I don't necessarily have the best options picked out. If you have any recommendations for missing titles - or recommendations for India in particular, any language - I would greatly appreciate it! Regardless, feel free to share any titles you might be interested in for these (or any) countries. How would your list look?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A book buying ban

After too many years of acquiring far more books than I manage to read, the time has come to take drastic action. Rather than culling my shelves outright (which, frankly, horrifies me), I have decided to engage in an extensive, purposeful, and targeted book buying ban, with the direct goal of reducing the sheer amount of unread books on my shelves.

"Okay, a book buying ban... big deal! Why are you writing a whole blog post about this?"

Good question, hypothetical reader! It's because I've decided to have a little bit of fun with my ban, and make it a little more complicated than just saying "no new books for the next six months".

No, instead of setting a specific timeframe, I have decided to limit myself based on the number of books I must read before I'm allowed to acquire new books. I have also decided that I need to archive books alongside simply reading, particularly when it comes to books that I have started, abandoned, picked up again, and abandoned several times. These will count separately, but my hope is that I can acknowledge that sometimes a book I bought five years ago just won't interest me today. And that's okay!

Here are a few of the rules for this period:
1. Seeing as I have somewhere over 120 unread books in my apartment alone (yikes!), I must read at least 40 books that I have not previously begun reading.
2. Seeing as I have 15 books that I have begun reading, but have stopped reading for some reason or other, I must finish or officially archive at least 8 partially completed books.
3. I must read at least 10 books in Hebrew. At least 4 of these must be by Israeli women.
4. I must read at least 5 books with more than 450 pages. Enough stalling! They're not that intimidating...
5. I will (try) to review at least 20 of the 40 books on this blog or on Goodreads. I might not be able to do this one, but I have to at least try.
6. I must read at least 5 books that qualify for the Women in Translation Reading the World Challenge. I hope to read more!
7. I must read at least 5 books that have been on my shelves for more than two years
Well there you have it, folks. While these rules don't say anything about library books (or gifts!) which I intend to continue reading, the hope is that these rules will both help me clear up some of the clutter on my shelves, as well as motivate me to read some excellent books! Honestly, I'm kind of excited. Time to get reading!



Note: Posts relating to the ban, including progress reports and reviews, will fall under the tag "the great book buying ban of tash'ach" since I really hope this will not last beyond this Jewish year....... wish me luck!

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.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

WITMonth Day 16 | Reading the world challenge (part 1)

One of my favorite things that I've discovered since starting this blog and reading more international literature is Ann Morgan's A Year of Reading the World blog and project. The project was the first time I'd encountered anyone with the explicit goal of reading a book from every country in the world. While the project was significantly more ambitious than anything I could ever imagine for myself, I found myself enraptured both by Morgan's exploration of the world through literature, and her methodology. This was a clear, organized project.

It's been a few years since Morgan's project ended, but I often find myself thinking about it. Over the past several months, I have also begun seeing whether I can replicate it, this time only with women writers in translation. This is a significantly more difficult challenge: not only are there many countries from which no work by women has been translated, there are also quite a few countries on earth in which literature is almost exclusively written in English. 

But this doesn't mean the overall conceptual challenge is impossible. And thus the challenge I formed for myself began simply (presentation inspired by the Bechdel test):
  1. Read a written work from every country on Earth
  2. By a woman writer
  3. Originally written in a language other than English
You'll notice that I didn't say "fiction" or "literature". To be honest, my original intention was to focus on longform fiction, but I soon realized how utterly impossible that would be. Too many countries have only a handful of works coming out of them, fewer still by women. These works are often individual short stories or poems or essays, compiled in various anthologies or academic collections. I decided it would be silly to omit those, simply because they were not of enough "mass". 

As I progressed in my research, I also realized that I wanted these other works. I want to read Angolan poetry. I want to read Brazilian queer feminist critiques. I want to read Tibetan memoirs. I want to read whatever the too-often underrepresented women of the world have to tell me, whatever it may be. All the complexities of the world that are wrapped up in this.

This led to another question: Shouldn't I be seeking out as many languages too? And so the project expanded somewhat there, as well. I began searching for as many works from as many different languages, within these countries (as well as including indigenous languages in various English speaking countries). This subproject has proven significantly more difficult than I had imagined, but I'm not giving up. Unlike Morgan, I'm not even going to try to read these works within a year... perhaps not even a decade. This is a lifelong project, with the simple goal of reading as widely and as fully as I can.

I don't know if other readers will want to join me on this project. It won't be simple, certainly, but it also won't be singular. I've been working on compiling my own personal reading list for several months now, but the truth is that it's just one (very limited!) list. Many countries are still missing (though it is possible that I've simply overlooked certain works!), and even more languages are absent. The list itself is still incomplete; as of writing this post, I have only collected titles through "Pakistan". Some countries have multiple titles, others have only one. I hope that this list will grow with time, and I hope that once I start sharing it with you all (soon!), you may add your own voices - books that are missing, books that perhaps aren't all that, and authors that you believe should be translated so that they may appear on these lists in the future.

This project will take many, many years. I'm so excited.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WITMonth Day 15 | Madame Curie by Ève Curie

When I found Madame Curie in a used bookstore, it felt like a sign. Not only was this a beautifully bound biography of one of the greatest scientists in history, it was written by her daughter Ève Curie in French (tr. Vincent Sheean). Marie Curie, a woman in translation. Quite appropriate.

Even so, it took me a long time to get around to reading this biography. In general, I find that I need more time and focus for most biographies (for most nonfiction overall, honestly), something that often clashes with my work demands and limited reading time. I love nonfiction, but I find myself reading less and less of it in recent years (for entertainment, that is; I read plenty for work...). Once I started Madame Curie, however, it took two focused sittings and I was done with the book. Enthralled by the life of this woman I have read so much about, yet ultimately know so little of.

Because yes, most of us know that Marie Curie was Polish. But how did she get to France? How did she fall in love with the sciences? What guided her to the places she reached, where she would eventually become infamous?

Curiously - or perhaps not, given that the biography was written by Curie's publicly adoring younger daughter - Madame Curie does not linger much on the traditional puzzle pieces or complexities one would expect from a biography. Most of the book details her personal life, rather than the professional aspect. Ève raises the sexism that Marie faced as a rare woman in her field, but doesn't really focus on it. I found this fascinating, since modern biographical pieces on Marie Curie (such as those found in almost every "Great Women in Science" or whatever types of collections) tend to emphasize this point, from an explicitly modern perspective. Ève doesn't do that. Yes, she acknowledges some of what Marie experienced, but she offers few interpretations of her own.

Overall, Ève Curie proves to be an interesting biographer, since she is also a character within the book. It is fairly odd to read a book in which the author alternates between referring to herself in the third person and a few paragraphs later, recounting the object of her book (in this case, her mother) through a personal anecdote. It creates a weird dissonance that I didn't always like.

However, I think it sort of goes without saying that Madame Curie is the sort of book you read with little regard for the technical writing. Not that it's bad, but I honestly wouldn't rank this as an especially good biography. It's a great piece of history, it's a great emotional assessment of a woman frequently reduced only to her science, and it's a lovely exploration of Marie Curie's life. There's something very warm about the way Ève writes of her mother, even if it at times feels like she's whitewashing her own history a little.

And of course... there's the content. I can't help but love this book for its content. I have admired Marie Curie for years, of course, not simply as a woman in the sciences, but also as a clear example of a woman who didn't let anything stand in her way. Yet the image I had in my mind seems to have been far from who Marie Curie really was. Rather than  the wunderkind I'd always imagined, a woman who did everything in her youth and spent years afterwards simply fighting the system, Marie Curie who got a Master's at 26 (like I expect to!) and married the great love of her life at 27 (what was once considered old!) and achieved her doctorate over several years. Instead of the mythical all-capable goddess of my imagination, Marie Curie instead appears as a totally brilliant human. A human like me, perhaps. With its focus on Marie Curie as a person and not just a scientist, Madame Curie gave me the hope that perhaps I too can someday be this sort of scientist. In this regard, I cannot overstate how emotional Madame Curie left me, feeling as though I had been given a small gift.

As I said, this isn't the most technically brilliant of books. But Madame Curie is nonetheless important. Ève's perspective is unique and at-times significant, besides which there are few full-length biographies of Curie from which to choose. Madame Curie is a lovely, if oddly informal (and non-academic) biography of an incredible woman. And it meant so very much to me.

Monday, August 14, 2017

WITMonth Day 14 | Almost-halfway vlog!


First vlog of WITMonth 2017! In which I mostly gush about how wonderful the first half of the month has been, and tease a little bit of the next half.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WITMonth Day 13 | Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

There was something instantly familiar and comfortable about Maresi.

I can't say what it was. I went into Maria Turtschaninoff's young adult fantasy (tr. A. A. Prime) knowing that the book was ostensibly a feminist-minded novel, and I couldn't help but be intrigued right off the bat. I also knew that the story takes place on a woman-only island, a sort of feminist utopia.

I didn't think of it at the time, but it seems that my mind must have subconsciously begun to call back to older feminist fantasy novels I read as a teen. Books like Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels (particularly The Mists of Avalon series) or Tamora Pierce's Tortall books. This, at least, is what happened once I started reading: I was instantly sucked into Maresi's world and found myself completely emotionally invested. Maresi - despite a fairly simple, at times more childish writing style than I was expecting - is exactly the sort of fantasy book I used to drink like water as a preteen. The characters are sharply drawn, the world is rich and easily called to mind, and the magic is present but lurking just beneath the surface.

Suffice to say: I really enjoyed Maresi.

It's not just nostalgia. Sure, there's a healthy heap of that too (who doesn't want more Tamora Pierce-like feminist fantasy novels?!), but it's mostly about the story that Maresi herself tells and the powerful message Turtschaninoff conveys about women and women's place in the world. Not only does The Red Abbey Chronicles create this pleasantly evocative little utopia, it also addresses why it's needed. Unlike many gritty, masculine fantasies that reference the subjugation of women as an afterthought, Turtschaninoff explicitly references the struggles that women - and more specifically young girls - go through. Women are abused, attacked, raped, sold off... and the Red Abbey provides a safe haven for them. Other women provide a safe haven for young girls.

In this sense, this is honest YA. The story is bluntly uncomfortable in parts, but it's never dark for the sake of being dark, and it's never painful. Maresi as a narrator frequently highlights the good moments, even as she struggles with the darkness that has come to invade her home. There is a warmth and strength in her voice that I immediately connected with, though again, I did find the writing to be a tad bit simplified in a way that didn't always match the story. The story is fairly predictable, but it also isn't really trying not to be. It works, somehow, in the same way that Tamora Pierce's early books (specifically the Lioness quartet) don't really need overly complex plotting in order to feel wonderfully rich and interesting.

This probably won't be the book for everyone. While the fantasy elements are relatively limited (mostly through a religious lens, with the three-part Goddess effectively contributing to all of the magic), it's still very much a YA fantasy. That's part of what I loved about it, but I recognize that fantasy YA is not exactly a universally beloved genre. And yet. For those readers who do love fantasy, who want to explore diverse YA, who want their historical fantasies to have just a bit (or a lot!) more feminism to them, Maresi is the way to go. It's a great little book, the sort that left me hungry for more books from this world.

Luckily, the next book in the series has already been released...

Saturday, August 12, 2017

WITMonth Day 12 | How they fight

I originally had a very different post in mind for today, but the news coming out of the US right now (along with months of news coming from there, the UK, across Europe, India, and so on) has me thinking about the way in which women writers from around the world have long fought against oppressive, racist, or fascist regimes.

I'm not just thinking about the actual writers themselves (though obviously they deserve attention and credit). I'm also left wondering what it means for women - particularly women from marginalized backgrounds - to use their voices to fight against oppression. I'm left wondering about those women writers who are willing to face the very public threats that come with being a woman in a public space, alongside their political views. I'm left wondering about those ways in which simply being a woman writer in certain spheres is a form of fighting in and of itself, and how we often fail to give women the credit they deserve for this.

I'm thinking of Elsa Morante, whose History looks at fascism directly in the eye and shows readers the reality of its effects. I'm thinking of Mahasweta Devi, who addressed political problems both within her fiction and without. I'm thinking of those who did not survive fascism, like Anne Frank or Chana Senesh, whose writing is entirely colored by their experiences. I'm thinking of writers like Herta Müller, or Mercè Rodoreda or Anna Seghers.

I'm thinking about the new generation of writers who are being forged right now, in the face of resurgent movements and existing hate. I'm thinking about young women from the around the world, whose words are fighting. And I'm left asking: will we get to hear their voices?

Friday, August 11, 2017

WITMonth Day 11 | The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane (tr. David Brookshaw) was the last book I bought during WITMonth 2016, and I read it in early 2017. I neglected to review it, despite, unsurprisingly, finding it to be a fascinating and important novel. Let's ask ourselves, seriously, how I could not be interested by "the first Mozambican woman ever to publish a novel"? Or a novel that explores polygamy from the eyes of the wives?

I should begin, then, by noting that from a literary perspective The First Wife isn't necessarily the most brilliantly written text you'll ever read. There were times in which the writing felt a little flat, with certain passages dragging on just a bit longer than I might have otherwise preferred. It's far from a poorly written novel, but it's also... not quite the best.

The content makes up for it, though. This is far and away one of the more culturally fascinating books I've had the pleasure to read as a result of the women in translation project, in large part because it often feels as though The First Wife really isn't trying to talk to me, but within Chiziane's own cultural consciousness. I have found that I like these sorts of books more than those that try to "talk" to a foreign audience - Chiziane doesn't try to address "Western concerns" or questions about whether polygamy is good/bad. The First Wife instead works entirely within the assumption that polygamy is... just a thing. Not a great thing, undoubtedly, but main-character Rami plots the entire concept.

The story begins with Rami - the titular "first wife" - finding out that her husband Tony has been keeping not one, but four different mistresses for years. Each woman is progressively younger and typically more beautiful than the previous, stemming from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Each woman is also deeply in love with Tony. But of course... they can't have him all the time. Under these circumstances, Rami sets out to force Tony to marry each of the mistresses and adopt a polygamous family under older traditions.

In this way, the novel fails to adhere to typical "Western" feminism. Rather than demonizing the subjugation of women (since of course the mistresses had had no legal claims before marriage...), there's an interesting exploration of what it means and how women find their strength within confining environments. Rami's initial fury over being duped turns into a fury over her husband's treatment of his various mistresses and children. Polygamy becomes a weapon not of the patriarchy against the women, but of the women against a man who seems to view them as meaningless and interchangeable in his life.

Slowly, over the course of the novel, each of the women - initially so emotionally and practically dependent on Tony - begin to change. Rami's "rivals" become more than just the younger mistresses of her husband, and she grows close with most. In her role as "the first wife", Rami exerts a great amount of control and influence over their lives, helping them achieve their ambitions and finding them stability (and indeed, sometimes love). In this way, The First Wife is able to display women's power in the places we assume women have none.

This, I think, is what makes The First Wife a uniquely feminist text. Chiziane is exploring what it means to be a woman, what it means to be women in a society that places them below men (Rami coolly refers to women's inferiority until the very end of the novel), and the ways in which women do find their voice, their strength, and sometimes their independence.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WITMonth Day 10 | Intersections

I've found myself thinking about intersections quite a bit today. Not that I don't try to contemplate intersections in general - it's definitely a topic that comes up frequently - but today it seemed especially prominent, as more and more friends and family members began asking me about this women in translation project that they hadn't really known until now. Suddenly, people who until now had only a vague sense of what this project meant to me began wondering: What about other languages? Are there differences between countries? Is there a difference with regards to self-published literature?

At this point in the conversation, I almost always have to bring up intersectionalism as a concept. Curiously, I've found that those unfamiliar with the concept (or not explicitly in its feminist context) accept it much more simply when they themselves are challenging it. It's the easiest thing in the world to just say, "Yes, there is more than one problem". Because there is.

While WITMonth explicitly focuses on women (and trans and nonbinary) writers in translation, yes. But longtime readers of this blog will recall that I have tried to have as broad of a WITMonth since its inception, even though I don't always succeed. And regardless my reading, I have always hoped that WITMonth recognize the other ways in which women writers in translation may belong to marginalized groups.

This is why I look at classic literature. At queer literature. Why I've pointed out the overall imbalances in publishing between books from Western Europe and the rest of the world. Women in translation are not a homologous monolith, each with exactly the same sort of bias against her. Within translated literature (and within the WIT project) exist several other intersections, like sexuality, ability, country of origin, writing language, and so on.

I know I say this all the time (and I'm becoming a bit of a broken record on the matter...), but it's important that we remember this point. It's important that we challenge our reading at every step of the way, because the point isn't just to check off the "women in translation" box on our "diversity" cards (eurgh). As I've argued before, the point is to experience the world as it truly is. That entails reading women of all backgrounds, and recognizing the intersecting identities that many women hold.

We cannot ignore that literature in translation has a demographic/continental bias. We cannot ignore that literature in translation overall favors certain languages over others. We cannot ignore that literature in translation rarely explores the working class experience. We cannot ignore the fact that each and every one of these factors plays a role when it comes to the books we see published overall, and doubly so for women writers. Yes, WITMonth will remain focused on women, but that doesn't mean we can't recognize some other problems along the way. Especially since they are equally solvable.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

Something that has happened more and more frequently to me in recent years is an odd tendency to start a book, be moderately disappointed by the first chapter, set it aside for a few days (or weeks), return to it, and fall in deep. This doesn't happen with every book, of course, but it's happened often enough that I've taken it as a sort of indicator: Sometimes you start a book at the wrong time. Give it a moment, give it a week, give it a few months... you might end up enjoying it a lot more when the time is right.

Hwang Jungeun's One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) felt very much like that sort of book. I read the first chapter during a particularly stressful week and found myself put off somewhat by the quotation-mark-less writing and the odd, almost airy style. I set it aside for a week. When I picked it up again, the prose felt like it had undergone some sort of transformation (though it was obviously I who underwent the change...). The simple style felt fresh and sharp, unburdened by unnecessary weight or false "literariness".

And I liked it.

It's an odd, sort of melancholic sort of book, framed by some rather nice symmetry and a quiet sort of social message. Curiously, based on the jacket description, I was expecting One Hundred Shadows to focus more explicitly on class differences and social inequality in modern Seoul, but... it's not that sort of book at all. Not that there aren't politics - narrator Eungyo and her friend-maybe-more Mujae discuss at some point the definition of the word "slum", and Eungyo often thinks about the state of their status as repairmen of sorts, working in a cheap market that has been marked for demolition. Both characters acknowledge the difficulties they've had, with Mujae referencing his inherited debts and the cost of college ("I didn't think what I was learning [in college] was worth getting into debt for") and Eungyo contemplating her reasons for dropping out of school as a teenager. In that sense, One Hundred Shadows is a solidly "working class" sort of a novel, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is.

In the midst of this political exploration of class comes a fantasy-like twist on it: rising shadows. The short novel begins with Eungyo following her newly-risen shadow out into the woods; Mujae is there to guide her back to reality. Over the course of the novel, several different characters describe stories of their rising shadows or undergo similar events. When his shadow rises, Eungyo notes that "it seemed as though Mujae was no longer present." These events seem to become more and more frequent as the novel progresses, linked perhaps to the anxieties of the neighborhood as the threat (and action) of demolition looms closer. Certainly references to shadow-risings that happen earlier are linked to death and despair...

And yet there's a surprising sweetness to the story. Eungyo and Mujae's friendship develops slowly, with the two supporting each other and balancing each other nicely. Each is there for the other when their shadow rises, and their growing bond seems to reflect that sort of deeper connection. It's a refreshingly honest sort of relationship, never overly explicit or harshly obvious.

This can be said of the novel overall - it's understated. The jacket, as I've already mentioned, calls this a "hard-edged novel", which seems like the last term I'd use for this sloping story (though many other reviewers have adopted it). It's certainly powerful, but the writing is almost explicitly quiet, with the fantasy elements also wrapping the story rather gently. It's more like a softly rolling dreamscape, but one that refuses to forget the world that shapes it. One Hundred Shadows doesn't have to be loud in order to make its political/social point clear to readers. On the contrary - I found that I much preferred this character-focused approach. It makes for a powerful, unique little novel, and one that I can easily recommend.

Monday, August 7, 2017

WITMonth Day 7 | The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog and my Twitter feed will perhaps raise an eyebrow. "Weren't you reading this over a year ago?" you may ask. The answer is, of course: yes, yes I was. And indeed I am still reading Clarice Lispector's The Complete Stories, a giant tome that could probably last a lifetime. Translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, The Complete Stories is that unique sort of publication that deserves every ounce of praise and recognition that it has received. It's a tremendous collection of varied and brilliant short stories, a remarkable indicator of Lispector's talents as a writer, and just a great read.

Here's what's amazing about The Complete Stories: it can work both ways. Want to read it straight through? Might be a little difficult, but you can certainly read story after story after story. Lispector's writing is sharp and always delightfully descriptive, nailing little emotions and scenes with high precision. Even when it changes style - because you cannot expect 700+ pages of short stories to have the exact same angle, style or perspective - the overall effect remains one of remarkably clean prose. You can also just pick it up in pieces. I read the first third of the book in one sitting, rushing through the stories, and have since been sampling the remainder with a story or two per week, never quite leaving Lispector's world behind, but also avoiding that full immersion I had at first.

Lispector is known for darker and dryer styles, all of which are on display in The Complete Stories. Some of these stories are light, gentle, sweet affairs, but others are creepy or downright terrifying. Lispector often uses a sort of slyly disconcerting style, in which a clearly drawn narrator will suddenly be unsettled, and the reader along with them. Even the stories which I liked less - often ones that were deliberately vague or seemingly scattered - avoid outright discomfort, opting instead for a more subtle sort of reader awareness. Lispector has this way of reminding you that you are reading - her use of language is remarkable in being an inherent character within the stories. It makes me wonder how difficult translating these sorts of works must be.

The Complete Stories also highlights a lot of what I didn't like about the first book by Lispector that I read: The Hour of the Star. I read Lispector's last (short) novel during the first-ever WITMonth, and was fairly disappointed, finding the writing technically interesting but the story almost uncomfortably emotionally dull. My conclusion was, at the time, that perhaps the brevity of The Hour of the Star was the source of the problem. I concluded that it would be best if I read one of Lispector's meatier novels next. Instead, I have found myself exceedingly satisfied by the opposite. In her short stories, Lispector's vagueness can often carry the story in its entirety. Technical exercises (in my experience) work far better as short stories than as novellas or novels. Furthermore, the wide variety between her stories keeps both individual stories and the collection at large from growing too dull.

This review is effectively superfluous. If you are a reader who can tolerate short stories (and I know that there are some readers who loathe the form...), you should read The Complete Stories. It's that simple. This is a truly wonderful collection by a brilliant writer. Go forth and read.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

WITMonth Day 6 | Rethink your PC

There's a common trope response against anyone arguing for inclusiveness: "this PC [politically correct] nonsense!" Or variations on a theme. People who - typically, but not always -  belong to the non-oppressed/over-represented group rush to tell those who do belong to (or champion voices within) an oppressed or under-represented group.

This has happened, of course, with WITMonth as well. Most egregiously, however, it happened on a totally harmless tweet: a totally lovely collection of photos that people have shared on social media detailing their favorite women in translation. The response - dismissing the collection of critically-and-reader acclaimed books as mere "twaddle" - demands to know why The Poetry Translation Centre isn't focused on "simply promoting good literature, rather than PC quota-like obsessions regardless of merit".

Ah yes. "Good literature". "Merit".

I've written extensively about the ways in which women's writing is dismissed and ignored. More importantly, Joanna Russ has written a brilliant book about it, too. The terms "good literature" and "merit" are heavily influenced by inherently gendered concepts, twisted by the bias we all have. No reader can disconnect their perception of works by women writers and their admiration for works by men, when almost all of the literature children read in schools (and in university) is by men, while women's writing is often limited to specific units or "women's studies" courses. And of course, this is not merely true for books by women writers, rather it represents a disturbingly pervasive fact when it comes to representation of writers from marginalized backgrounds (and especially those who represent an intersection of several marginalized identities).

Here's the cold, uncomfortable truth: Having WITMonth isn't about being "PC". It's not about reading women for the sake of women, to mark a checkbox and feel progressive. It's because we want the best literature, and you simply aren't going to get it if all you're reading is the same men again and again, and only ever from English. If we truly went by merit, I honestly do not believe we would ever have such a severe imbalance between men and women, nor between English-language authors and those in translation, nor between white authors and non-white authors, nor between straight authors and queer authors, nor between able-bodied authors and disabled authors. Excellent writers exist in all stripes and come from all backgrounds. We must always remember that, as well as recognize the additional hurdles writers from marginalized backgrounds must overcome in order to have the privilege of being heard.

Reading only English-language, white, straight men? Now that's just trying to be politically correct. The rest - WITMonth included - is just reality.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

WITMonth Day 5 | The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

You know those books that you almost don't want to read because of how they suddenly seem to represent everything that's going on in your life? Like when you were a child and suddenly the protagonist of the book you were reading was struggling in school like you were, or finding a book about losing a parent just as your close friend was dealing with her grief. Sometimes books just seem too real, and goodness if Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) didn't feel exactly that.

It's been a few months since I read The Queue, a few months in which it's remained an itchy little reminder in the back of my mind. This is unsurprising, of course - the political climate of late has been so turbulent, so virulent, so baffling that it's hard not to strongly relate to a novel that details the pervasive, insistent, cancerous growth of authoritarianism. The Queue does so from a very specific angle, taking place in a not-entirely-unfamiliar version of Egypt with its own unique struggles (including explicit references to questions of religious purity and specific Islamic values).

And yet somehow, in April of 2017, the novel felt eerily familiar to this reader.

The Queue is not an especially long, heavy, or complex read. Rich with characters as it may be, the story remains focused on a few specific individuals who effectively reside in "the queue" - a long, indeed stagnant and eternal line that is waiting for The Gate to open. The Gate represents the new, authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed to the public. Even as it demands that citizens acquire specific approvals, documents, and certificates from the Gate in order to conduct normal lives (in some cases, in order to live at all), it remains steadfastly closed, even as it hands down more decrees.

The Gate has remained closed since the Disgraceful Events, when protests against the state erupted. These protests represent both the strength and weakness of the Gate: its strength in eliminating the protesters and convincing the public that these Events didn't occur as witnesses clearly show they did, while also forcing its bunkered retreat. Among the victims of the Events is Yehya, who was shot by government forces. Since the official narrative rejects that the government even needed to use live weapons, the bullet that remains lodged in Yehya cannot exist and thus Yehya's declining health is fictional as well. Yehya's health forms a sort of frame story, guided by the surgeon who initially saw Yehya and identified the bullet that remained within.

Alongside Yehya's story, The Queue introduces additional characters who need the Gate's approval for various issues. One man seeks to reclaim his family's honor, a woman tries to stay afloat as her son suffers from illness, a journalist wanders the queue in a quest to understand their stories... Each story introduces one more small angle of the Gate's authority, from control of the media to control of basic businesses (like the state-run cell-phone provider that doesn't really provide service) to the gradual - and then avalanche-scale - erosion of freedom.

And here was the point at which things began to hit close to home.

A major theme in The Queue is the reliability of truth itself. The truth of the truth. Do you believe what you are told so very reasonably? Do you believe what your own eyes have seen, even if it contradicts what you're being told? At what point is the demand of the state truly too much? At what point is it obvious that you are being truly and thoroughly oppressed? These are not trivial questions, and The Queue doesn't pretend to answer them. It's not about having an answer, it's about the route taken. A small lie enables outright, blatant denials of the truth. This not only echoes the new political climate in the US - a world of "fake news" and alternative facts - but Israel, where journalists are often (quite frankly) so shallow that it is almost impossible to identify truth from propaganda. True, both countries are still democracies (if each severely flawed in its own way...), but it felt like that iceberg tip. Just a little more and things might collapse.

The Queue is a good book. Powerful, cleanly written, thought-provoking. Both Yehya's core story and Tarek's frame are emotionally engaging, while the additional fragments from the side-characters build this world in a remarkable way. Pieces of the plot felt a little thick at times, but the relatively short length of the story keeps the book as a whole from getting bogged down. It is, ultimately, a cool-headed dystopian tale of a world that is actually far too real.

Here, at least, we have one truth...