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...