Women in Translation Month: Some Recommendations
I was quite behind on Women in Translation Month, unfortunately. I realised it was happening at a time when I was cutting back on my book buying in order to get through some things I had on my pile, and realised I had no women in translation on my bedside table. Of course this, in part, proves the central thesis of Women in Translation Month: that we aren't reading enough women in translation. I've read my fair share, maybe more than most, but even that doesn't mean that it's part of my routine reading habits.
It’s pretty much what it says on the tin, but you can read more about it here, here and here. In short, translated literature is underappreciated in English speaking literary culture. Furthermore, most translated writing published in the UK is written by male writers.
I did get on the train eventually. Here’s an article in The Cardiff Review about one of the books I've read, and what my fellow editors have been reading. But I wanted to go a bit more in depth. First, some recommendations, and then what I’ve been reading this month.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada (trans. Susan Bernofsky)
This is one of those rare, gorgeous finds that you only learn about by stumbling across it absentmindedly — and also one of those concepts that only come out of translated fiction, because they challenge the sense of what is acceptable in mainstream English writing. The novel is about three polar bears across three generations, and the stories of their lives. The first: a memoirist in Soviet Russia, who eventually emigrates to East and then West Germany, before leaving for Canada, constantly moving around in pursuit of her freedom to create art. This was my favourite section of the novel, as it deals with the struggle between life and art and also the ways in which art is abused for political and commercial reasons. The second part follows a polar bear raised for a life in the East German circus, and the third, a bear in a zoo in the 21st century.
I guess this book ticked all the boxes. It’s about Cold War politics, and it’s sort of “magical realism” — or that’s the way our culture would like to understand it. In any case, it’s pushing the boundaries of the real and unreal and certainly challenging the stranglehold of realism as the dominant form in Western literature. It’s also about art, performance, animal rights, humanity. It’s great because it could be such a normal novel, except that they’re polar bears. And the fact that they are bears also doesn’t come up that much. The idea really tickles me.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)
This book became a bit of a phenomenon last year after it won the Man Book International. It’s a fascinating and strange read — and a great exploration of the gaze, male and female; how society defines and polices women’s bodies.
Human Acts is also supposed to be excellent, and I’m going to endeavour to read it soon as it sounds right up my street. The White Book is also being published quite soon by Portobello, and is getting a lot of hype right now. I won’t say too much more, just go and read it for yourself.
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell)
Intense and short. It’s one for fans of what is sometimes described as “literary thriller” — what does that mean? Who knows. But, basically it’s gripping, but it’s not one for the thriller section of the book shop, I suppose. Things, especially genre, are arbitrary and strange.
A woman lies dying in a clinic, relaying the story of how she got there to a young boy named David. Whatever’s going on, it’s pretty damn disturbing. It’s about sickness and also the instability of our souls. I got through it one sitting.
Thanks to Oneworld for sending a reading copy of this to me.
What I Read This Month
Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors (trans. Martin Aitken)
I read Dorthe Nors’ book Mirror, Shoulder, Signal when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International. It caught my attention partly due to the summary, which seemed quite — I’m not sure what the word is — soft? It’s about a woman who translates crime novels. She lives alone. She’s hit middle age. And after all this time, she’s learning to drive. That’s basically what it’s about. It’s kind of about her midlife crisis, her dislike of living in Copenhagen, the sense of lost time and lost youth. It’s funny and charmingly written and I enjoyed it because it felt like a good coming of age novel, except she’s way older than me. How reassuring that can feel, that we continue to search for meaning in our lives well into adulthood.
Since then her short stories have been reprinted in the UK by Pushkin Press as Karate Chop, and they’re fantastic. I have to say, Nors was obviously born to write short stories. They’re so brief yet completely full of character and psychology. These are people with deep emotional issues that manifest in their actions. Sounds basic, but that’s the art of good short story writing right there. They create the sense of the person, allow you to peep into the depths of their soul, to see what hurts them. They can be dark but, again, they’re very funny and quite charming.
The Impossible Fairytale, Han Yujoo (trans.Janet Hong)
I have literally only just started this, so I don’t have a lot to say from personal experience. It’s one of the most recent books published by Tilted Axis Press (a press for whom I wrote a love letter, here). It’s described as a fantastic work of metafiction, and that’s all I really needed to know. Thus far the writing is pretty sublime.
Abandon, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (trans. Arunava Sinha)
This is the second book I’ve read from Bandyopadhyay, after I read Panty last year. This has a lot of the same hallmarks. It’s, in similar ways, about female desire, motherhood, art, sickness. But in Abandon I feel like this themes are more fleshed out. It’s the story of a mother who abandons her former life and her child in the pursuit of art, only for her child to find her again and for them to be stuck together, trying to make ends meet in a new city with nowhere to stay and no money.
There are two things I really like about this novel. The first is the fact that Ishwari, the mother, narrates the novel. But she narrates it using the first and third person, and sometimes comments on their joining together. She sometimes describes the “I” doing something (including watching or interacting with Ishwari) and sometimes describes Ishwari doing something — creating an inbuilt sense of disassociation in the narrative, and also portraying the conflict between the soul, the artist, the mother, and the various other aspects of the self. The other thing that I loved about this book is that it unflinchingly portrays a mother and protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with as quite a flawed, even abusive, mother which feels real and authentic and uncliched.
On the subject of which, both the previous books were published by Tilted Axis Press, an independent northern press focused on fiction in translation particularly out of Asia. It was started by rockstar of the literary translation world, Deborah Smith, who is also Han Kang’s English translator. I have a much longer post about Tilted Axis’ previous work here which includes plenty great women in translation. Thanks to Tilted Axis for sending me a proof copy of Abandon.
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector (trans. Benjamin Moser)
I won’t say too much about this one, as I’ve written about it at length for The Cardiff Review, but it’s the last of Clarice Lispector’s novels. It’s about poverty, art, class. It’s also got a narrator who keeps injecting himself into the prose, and revelling in his own existential angst. An absolutely amazing piece of work. One of those novels that makes you think “I didn’t know you could do that!”
So, it won’t be Women in Translation Month for that much longer, but that’s no excuse. Get reading, get recommending.