Tag Archives: Women in Translation

Selfies by Sylvie Weil

When I noticed that Selfies by Sylvie Weil was getting good responses on Twitter I ordered it to read for Women in Translation Month (August): #WITMonth. Selfies by Sylvie Weil was published in English in June 2019, having first appeared in French in 2015. It is translated by Ros Schwartz.

Selfies

I am not clear about the genre of Selfies. It would probably be classed as a memoir, but it is creative and imaginative, so it might be a novel. This confusion results partly from its presentation. This is part of its charm.

Each of the 13 sections contained within Selfies begins with a brief description of a self-portrait by a female artist. The original painting is then is reinterpreted in words as a scenario with the author as the subject. Then follows a narrative, short or long, related to the scene. It seems a little clunky at first, but soon the creative and imaginative format appeals, and it becomes hard to stop reading.

Another way to envisage this book is to anticipate 13 episodes, significant in the author’s life, and to see them refracted through a painted self-portrait. 

Sylvie Weil introduces us to her first self-portrait. In about 1200 Claricia, a German illuminator, portrayed herself swinging by the arms from the tail of a large capital ‘Q’. 

I will paint my self-portrait as a letter ‘I’ against a background the warm hue of ancient parchment. A perfect upright, slender, graceful adolescent girl, wound like a vine around a rope dangling from a ceiling that is either invisible or covered in verdant foliage, since this is an illumination. … (10)

 Her narrative is an account of a gym lesson in her convent. She is climbing ropes and experiencing the sensuous pleasure of her own body. 

Gwen John’s Self Portrait with Letter is reimagined as the author painting her own portrait holding a postcard. The pc has a message from an American lover, who after a few days in Paris decides that they will marry and he invites her to New York. The visit does not go well and the reader is relieved when … 

We see her as an older woman taking many photographs of everyone at a social event and deleting all except the ones of her son; we read about the best friend relationship that turns out to be not so close; we recognise her reaction to friends who had their dog put down for their convenience and so on. She reflects on herself and how the people around her have influenced her. As one reads the vignettes her development and character become a clearer.

The reader inevitably wonders what self-portraits would s/he draw on, and what that would reveal. I love this French experimentation with form, which makes it an intriguing and compelling read.

Selfies by Sylvie Weil published in English in 2019 by Les Fugatives. Originally published in Paris in 2015. 152 pp

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

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Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

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The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc

I decided to get hold of this strange little book after reading an article about it in the Guardian by Deborah Levy, which turned out to be the introduction to this new edition. According to Deborah Levy the novels of Violette Leduc are works of genius and also a bit peculiar. She suggests that in addition to Proust and Genet, who were challenging the received ideas about love and sexual roles, Leduc was also  ‘rearranging the social and sexual scaffolding of her time.’

I did find this novel very rewarding and also quite unsettling. These are good things to find in a novel.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc. Translated from the French by Derek Colman.

The Lady and the Little Fox Furby Violette Leduc

The lady of the title is in her 60s and lives alone with no income, in a room in Paris under the noisy Metro line. We never learn her name, nor anything much about her previous life, nor why she is in the position she is. We intuit that she never married, has no children, never had a profession and has few, if any surviving friends.

It is the sensation of hunger, of loss of a future, or everyday connection to the rhythms of busy Parisian life that concerns the old lady of the title. (viii)

These three connected sensations occupy the short novel. Each on its own would make a sad story, but Violette Leduc’s lady suffers all three. She is weak from hunger, near the end of her life, but she is attempting to gain human warmth from going onto the streets and into the metro.

As a result, this short novel is in part a wonderful evocation of Paris, night and day, its undersides, the sounds of the streets at night, the light on the river, the metro stations, the streets. As she walks the lady comments on or speaks to everything, animate and non-animate. Memories, small incidents are savoured to give spice to her life. Here is an example of her auditory world.

One night, as a train was fleeing from winter outside her attic, a window had been opened by five or six bars of trumpet playing. Then the window closed again. The diamond winter and the glittering brass. She remembered it still in summer, in the gardens of a square, and she thought of herself as the chosen one of winter. She waited for the brazen blare of jazz again, the first night of frost, but the window would not light up. (26)

Once she is aching for a sip of orange juice and searching for oranges in the rubbish she finds an abandoned fox fur. She adopts the fox, imbuing it with life and love for her. Eventually she realises she is so poor she must sell it. But her attempts bring her contempt and rejection. She realises that the fur must stay with her, must be warmed by her.

In the loneliness and cold of the night she experiences great discomfort, as she tells her feet.

My temples, my stomach she groaned, addressing the words to her feet, two warm strangers. Her eyes were misting over, her heart was talking on her lips. To need everything when everything is finished. She no longer knew whether she was sad or whether it was hunger. (28)

Something about the lack of inhibition in an older person allows them to make observations that are considered a bit unsavoury and downright funny. The lady’s billing and cooing at the fox, for example reminds us of how women have always been expected to address foxy gentlemen.

There is a hallucinatory quality to this novel. The woman frequently addresses inanimate objects, implies that they have spirit, life, and that everything in Paris is responding to her actions. While we know that at one level this is a little delusional, we are also required to see that some of our own behaviour is similar, although we may not be as hungry as this old lady.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc was first published in Paris in 1965. I read the Penguin European Writers edition, of 2018, with an introduction by Deborah Levy. 80pp

Translated from the French by Derek Colman

Women in translation

I have reviewed many books by women in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

People in the Roomby Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

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People in the Room by Norah Lange

People in the Room by Norah Lange is my October choice in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. This novel was first published in Argentina in 1950, and has only recently been translated by Charlotte Whittle.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory work, about a young girl who spies on three women in the house across the street.

… an uncanny exploration of desire, domestic space, voyeurism, and female isolation, a twentieth century masterpiece … [from the blurb]

People in the Room by Norah Lange was first published in Argentina in 1950 and in English in 2018, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle.

People in the Room by Norah Lange

The story is minimal. A young girl, the narrator, lives in a city, in a nice area. Across the road she can see the heads of three women sitting in their house. She conjures all kinds of ideas about them as nothing much happens. A telegram arrives, which she intercepts, and a man visits. Letters are handed over, and then given back to one of the women. The older woman begins to fascinate her. A widow? A murderer? The girl visits and watches and most of the novel is her account of her own reactions to almost nothing, or to the merest hint of events or possessions from the women or to her own imagination about them.

Her family become concerned that she has changed and send her away. On her return she finds that everything is different.

So what is it about?

One reason that I did not enjoy this book very much was that it is such an accurate version of self-obsessed adolescence. It reveals the neediness of adolescence, wanting to be the centre of attention; the narrator is not happy that her family have not noticed the change in her, for example. And there is their simultaneous need for secrets; she tells her family nothing about her obsessive spying on the women in the house opposite.

It is also about the boredom of a young woman in Argentina at that time, and about the restrictions suffered by older women. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, waiting for death become the obsessions of all these women. The narrator’s scope is claustrophobic. She rarely steps beyond her street, Avenida Juramento, beyond her family home or the house opposite. No wonder she is bored. No wonder she turns to invention, speculation and voyeurism.

Adolescents seek control of their lives, having so little but seeing the approach of adulthood. There is nothing more controlling than narrating your own story, its own versions, speculations, truths and lies. And spying.

In my own life I have had rather too much adolescent wordery, but Anna Ashanyan caught something of the quality of the prose when she wrote the following in the Guardian review in September 2018:

Combining painterly qualities with poetic imagery, Lange’s prose is rich in metaphor, self-absorbed and, at its best, darkly irresistible. [Guardian Sept 2018]

It is reported in the introduction that an inspiration for the novel came when Norah Lange saw the triple portrait of the Bronte sisters. Painted by Bramwell, famously he included himself and then erased his image.

Norah Lange

Norah Lange from Revista Literaria 1970 via Wiki Commons

Norah Lange was born in Buenos Aires in 1905 into a literary family and was a prominent member of the avant garde in the city in the 1920s and 30s. She died in 1972. References to her on the internet always include mention of Borges and sometimes her husband Oliverio Girondo who was a poet. She first made her name first as a poet and then as a novelist. Her reputation is in the shadow of these men’s. Feminism has always been ignored when possible, and the culture at that time was dominated by ideals of machismo.

Related articles

I recommend two reviews in the Guardian, which I found helpful in giving me a perspective on this novel.

Norah Lange: Finally, ‘Borge’s muse’ gets her time in the spotlight by James Reith. The article looks at why Norah Lange has been ignored, and the headline writer has fallen right into that old trap …

People in the Room by Norah Lange -Voyeurism and dreams in Buenos Aires by Anna Ashanyan

People in the Room by Norah Lange, first published in Argentina in 1950 and in the English version by Andotherstories in 2018. 167pp

Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

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Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

What I like about reading fiction in translation is that everything is questioned; everything familiar about fiction written in English is made unfamiliar. I find that exciting and unsettling and I finish these monthly forays into Women in Translation always a little chastened, wondering at the stretching of my ideas about fiction, life and the world.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is my choice for July in this series. Among many things, she makes me ask myself, what is fiction? For here one finds diaries (fictional or not?), reports, photographs, line drawings, diagrams, memoir and reflections, particularly on the subject of the polar explorers and on ice. It was published in Barcelona in 2015 as Germa de gel and was translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

A Summary

First it was the tabular icebergs, which appeared floating in the local pool. Narwhals got in through a crack in the tiles at the bottom. In the chlorinated water, I squeezed a bit of white ice in my hand, making a game of sinking it and letting it resurface. A dream. Later, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw icecaps in the blue tutus on Degas’s ballerinas. (15)

I found this to be a strange novel, difficult to get into. I have quoted the opening paragraph. It does not obey many of the rules for hooking the reader. In fact, it is quite obscure. But the reader is soon offered so much information, so many ideas, (I love the ballerina tutu image), so that many of us have stuck with it. The themes of ice and polar exploration soon emerge.

Part of the novel is the story of the writer’s struggles as an artist, in Barcelona, with galleries, her work and so forth. Some of it is about her youth, and especially growing up with an autistic brother. Alicia tells us about her family, how her father left, her mother became fixed on her work at school and care for her son, who cannot do the simplest thing without being instructed. Her writing, about the her (?fictional) past, is down to earth, authentic.

The Alicia of the novel makes her way gradually as an artist, often poor, often doing awful jobs, sometimes in a relationship sometimes not. Life is hard and she questions all the time why she is writing this.

She also offers us riffs on her many experiences, on ideas that emerge. For example she produced a taxonomy of gifts (poisoned gift, regift, betrayal gift, apology gift, crap gift etc), and makes observations about the necessity to read the language of nature to learn more about the natural world.

And there is a great deal about the compulsion of the polar regions for the explorers who wanted to be first to the poles, about the trials of their expeditions.

What I liked

I enjoyed the accumulation of all this. And I was captivated by the central idea of the impermanence and unfixed-ness of things – of ice, the poles, life, love, the family, one’s ideas and achievements. I also like the idea that the writer and the reader is something like those polar explorers.

I especially enjoyed the final section of the novel, set in Iceland. The airline looses her luggage, she goes to visit the waterfalls and the valley of the first Icelandic parliament on excursions. I recognised the country I have visited. Of the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) she writes:

Its energy and ferocity combined with the purifying power of the water exert a magnetic pull on me that I can’t quite rationalize. (221)

The novel won the English Pen Award and came to me through the Asymptote club. My name appears in the list at the back, because I supported the publisher.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, published by And Other Stories in 2015. 256pp

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

What happens when you are 50, mother of 12 children, still coping with the humiliation of the second wife and then widowed? Mariana Bâ was writing in French, and her novel is set in Senegal in the 1970s. Published in 1979 it still speaks to us about the position of women, the legacy of colonialism and the subjection and exploitation of women allowed by an interpretation of Islam and cultural traditions.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation, usually works of fiction.So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a short novel, translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas.

A summary of So Long a Letter

The novel is framed as a letter, written by Ramatoulaye, who is 50 and has just been widowed. Like her creator, she lives in Senegal and is well educated. She writes her letter to her long-time friend Aissatou. The friend left Senegal to live as an independent woman in the US when her husband took a second wife.

The husband of Ramatoulaye had also taken a second wife, the friend of their oldest daughter. Like Aissatou, Ramatoulaye refuses to be cowed by these events although her husband abandons her and her twelve children. She had decided to stay in Senegal as his first wife. On his death, in the Islamic tradition, it is revealed that he spent his wealth on his new wife’s family. The letter begins as the widow tries to understand the events of her adulthood, including her marriage which took place against the wishes of her family. Some of the most delightful parts of this novel are the descriptions of happy times, with their husbands holidaying on the coast.

Ramatoulaye refuses the offers of marriage that come her way as a widow, instead waits for her 40 days of mourning and seclusion to be over, and to be able to meet with her old friend.

The novel ends on a note of optimism, implying that these two women will support each other from the effects of polygamy and the patriarchy of their society.

Feminism in So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ(1929-1981) was born in Dakar, Senegal, and brought up by her grandparents after the early death of her mother. They planned to educate her only to primary school level. Her father persuaded them to let her continue her education. She trained as a teacher and was employed in the classroom from 1947 – 1959, after which she became a school inspector. She had nine children and divorced her husband, a Senegal politician and minister.

Mariama Bâ was a feminist activist in Senegal until her early death in 1981.  Senegal achieved independence in April 1960 and the novel is full of the tensions between the old and new ways, African ways vs the European, traditional vs modern.

In So Long a Letter Ramatoulaye’s husband had worked as a lawyer for the trade union movement and she had been pleased to support his work, bear him 12 children, run his household and hold down her own job. But when he became older and obsessed with a younger woman he indulged himself by taking a second wife.

Whereas a woman draws from the passing years the force of her devotion, despite the ageing of her companion, a man, on the other hand, restricts his field of tenderness. His egoistic eye looks over his partner’s shoulder. He compares what he had with what he no longer has, what he has with what he could have. (41)

She reminds her friend Aissatou of the painful experience of being rejected for a younger wife. The pain is personal and no more bearable for being sanctioned under Islamic custom and the laws of Senegal. It is still legal in Senegal and in 57 other countries. Neither of these women accepted their situation, and one imagines that together they will represent a considerable force for change.

Mariama Bâ makes it clear that the new wife also looses a great deal in accepting her position, not least the pleasures of being young and in an equal partnership.

The women’s situations are not just problems of Africa or of Islam or of polygamy. Older women are often made to feel inadequate in the face of younger rivals in every culture – the toxic combination of ageism and sexism.

For Ramatoulaye being a mother is also important and when one of her own children finds herself in trouble she looses no time in deciding to support rather than reject her.

And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightening streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end. (82-83)

She does not need to spell out that her husband, the father of their 12 children, has not provided this unconditional and enduring love.

So …

I found So Long a Letter was a quick and easy read. I learned a great deal about feminism and women in Senegal and West Africa. I was surprised and shocked to find that polygamy is still legal in the world. I was impressed by Mariama Bâ’s feminism, and saddened that her life was cut short. At least we have this and one other posthumous novel, Scarlet Song, which I have not yet read. Copies are easy to find so I recommend you read this short book, if you haven’t already.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâwas published in French in 1979, and in English in 1980. Originally published as Une si longue lettre, it was translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas. I read the edition published by Virago in its New Fiction series in 1982. 90pp

First winner of the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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Love by Hanne Østavik

The single word of the title, Love, is absent throughout this short novel. Is there love? Do the characters love each other? Can Vibeke love Jon as a mother should? Is it absence of love, or the search for it that causes the final tragedy? Set in the snowy north of Norway, without daylight, these are some clues about the emotional temperature of this novel.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. Love by Hanne Østavik is a short book, sent by the Asymptote club. Originally published in 1997 in Norwegian, it was translated by Martin Aitken for publication by archipelago books this year.

A summary of Love

Vibeke, a single mother, and her son Jon have recently moved to the village in the north of Norway. The events of the novel take place over a single night. It will be Jon’s 9thbirthday the next day.

The story is told alternating, almost every paragraph between Vibeke and Jon, their thoughts and actions. Jon thinks about his mother and what she might be doing all the time. Vibeke, as far as we are told, never thinks about Jon once when she goes out.

After a quick meal of boiled sausages and bread wraps both mother and son go out, without the other knowing. She goes to the library, then to the fair and then to find some nightlife with a fairground worker. We see her creating a belief in the attraction the man Tom feels for her. She interprets every action as a step towards a closer relationship. He returns her home without anything happening. She assumes Jon is in bed. She has given no thought to him or his birthday or to the promises she made him last year.

Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for a club he has recently joined, visits the house of a girl who attends his school and then goes home to find he has locked himself out and his mother is not in. He convinces himself that she has gone to get ingredients for his birthday cake. As he waits he is picked up by another fairground worker. At this moment one feels he is in real trouble, but it turns out that the driver of the car wants company. He too tries to guess what is in his companions’ minds, and to keep at bay his childish fears.

With two characters who make assumptions all the time, the final tragedy is inevitable but not foreseen.

Reading Love

As one reads this short but compelling novel, the absence of love, or of love expressed dominates every page. The relationship felt dysfunctional from the beginning. There were some moments when Jon’s naivety looks as if it will lead him into trouble: an old man leads him to his basement, but gives him a pair of old skates; he accepts the invitation to get in the stranger’s car, for example.

Vibeke appears distracted, wanting something that she can only imagine or fabricate from her situation. As a single mother myself I wondered how she could live with so little thought for Jon. Jon persuades himself that Vibeke is thinking of him and acting on his behalf, preparing for his birthday. Tragedy comes from the miscommunication.

The reader must work hard to discern the narrative, follow the two characters at the same time, distil their actions from the description, and feel the tension as it winds tighter and tighter. Here’s a random choice (I could not decide any criteria for a choice, except to show both Jon and Vibeke). Jon is in the house of a girl from his school, playing the board game Othello. Vibeke has just found that the library is closed but sees the lights of the fair.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” says Jon.

“Let me guess, you’ll be eighteen,” the girl says with a laugh.

Jon has the upper hand, his black counters are all over the board. The girl has given up and isn’t taking it seriously anymore.

Vibeke goes in through the fairground entrance. A reveller bumps into her, braying something unintelligible and carrying on oblivious. She stops and looks around. (35)

Love is a challenging but compelling read.

Love by Hanne Østavik published in English in 2018 by archipelago books. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Originally published as Kjaerlighetin 1997. 125pp

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Nothing Holds Back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller.

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation is not an easy task, as I have complained before. There are few reviews in newspapers or on blogs. I find recommendations in lists by other readers, and from organisations that support translations. I notice that animals feature in several titles (see the polar bear), and since it is several months since I read anything translated from Chinese, this is my choice for this month’s women in translation post.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin was translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The story of Notes of a Crocodile

Set in Taipei in the last years of the 1990s, the central character is a young woman, finding it hard to understand her sexual identity within her group of friends. Lazi falls for a young woman, a student who is a few years older than her. Shui Ling is an obsession for the narrator. Their relationship blows hot and cold and Lazi is confused both by her feelings and by Shui Ling’s reactions.

Her other friends are also finding their way in the difficult time. Meng Sheng is a charismatic young man, challenging, wayward and rich. He and his partner Chu Kuang are both experimenting with their sexuality. These two young men reappear in her life from time to time, often high on drugs or inebriated. And two young women friends are also finding it hard to maintain their intense friendship. The affectionate Tun Tun and her companion Zhi Rou. Finally, Lazi meets a woman, Xiao Fan, who cares for her, but is herself so damaged that a painful split is inevitable. Without apparent studying, Lazi graduates, celebrates alone, but having learned about her desires and the raw places her desires take her to.

The structure of Notes of a Crocodile

The novel is presented as a mash-up of diary entries, fantasies or short stories on the subject of crocodiles or notes. The innovative post-modern style partly explains Qiu Miaojin’s cult status. The crocodile elements of the novel provide a different beat to the painful narrative of Lazi’s life. The crocodile is trying to pass as a human. In crocodile world, the media are in a frenzy to discover crocodiles, and everything about them. Lazi’s crocodile has been living a lonely life, believing s/he (it is hard to ascertain the gender of crocodiles apparently) is alone in the world. But about half way through the novel the crocodile finds an ad from the Crocodile Club for a Christmas Eve gathering.

When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didn’t sleep for days. It had never occurred to the crocodile that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more they had already formed a club! Could that possibly mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant teardrops welled up in its eye. (139)

The crocodile theme relates to how LGBT people were seen in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The country was not long out of martial rule. Heterosexuality had been the only acceptable form of human sexual behaviour. But the LGBT people were demanding recognition and rights. The playful argument of pro- and anti-croc reveals the basic level of the discussion.

For more on the context of Notes of a Crocodile, see the comments by Ari Larissa Heinrich in Consider the Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, in the LA Review of Books.

Reading Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

I did not find Notes of a Crocodile an easy read in part because there were so few connections to my experience. Qiu Miaojin (1969 – 1995) was Chinese, from Taiwan. The story she recounts was about the university years of her characters. She was a lesbian, writing about the lesbian experience in Taipei at that time.

The experience recalled my lack connection I experienced when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – all angsty, endless picking over the smallest of interactions, and appealing to another readership. Qiu Miaojin references Murakami on the first page, and later tells us Lazi took a copy of Norwegian Wood as she flees from another break up with Shui Ling.

The intensity of the failing relationships became wearing. So did her attempts to change her life, undertaken in the knowledge that she would fail.

For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire, regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however I was determined to liberate myself. (182-3)

Sadly Qiu Miaojin committed suicide when she was only 26. Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. She gained something of a cult following. I do not expect to pick up her other novel, Last word from Montmartre, very soon.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin New York Review Books (1994) 242pp

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translation from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Next month (April) I plan to read Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the Canal is a novella, published by the much appreciated Peirene Press and sent to subscribers as the third in their East and West Series: Looking Both Ways. In this book we are brought to East Germany before and after reunification, to explore how a young woman fails to find her way in either. The bleakness of the Communist East offers little to a free spirit, and reunification with West Germany is suffocating her hometown. Where is a young woman to be? First published in German in 1994, four years after the reunification, Dance by the Canal still has a great deal to tell us about Europe today.

The Story of Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haßlau grows up as an unloved and untalented child, in a fictional town called Leibnitz in East Germany. Gabriela is a disappointment and distraction to her parents. Her father is a self-important surgeon finding the restrictions of the East German state hampers his ability to impress people. Her mother is scarcely interested in her daughter and when the couple begin entertaining, against the wishes of the state, she begins an affair. The marriage disintegrates as Gabriela’s father is removed from his post.

Led astray at school, Gabriela begins to distance herself from her family and the future organised for her by the state. She begins an apprenticeship at a machinery factory. From there she is rescued in a shady deal. In exchange for reporting on her friends she is to be a spy, and when this doesn’t work out she ends up on the street, sleeping under the canal bridge.

Bleak because there seems no answer for Gabriela, and she cannot help herself. Neither the East nor the reunified Germany can cope with her.

Humour

There is a great deal of wit in this novel, despite its rather bleak tone and ambiguous ending. Her father, a vascular surgeon, rebukes the child for crying when the tangles in her hair are pulled.

– Think of all the people with varicose veins, Father would say, you don’t see them crying. (12)

And here is the vivid way in which Gabriela describes the work she was required to do at the I-Plant: filing iron plates.

Five kilograms of iron, heave up, press to bib, clamp, screw down, file, position, up and down, thirty-degree angle, release vice, hold the plate tightly, turn the plate, retighten, file, up down up down, only fucking’s better, rotate, change, take off plate, set aside, check with bare fingertips, five kilograms of iron, heave up, clamp, turn it the other way, nose wipe, iron stinks, bad filing cuts into flesh, five kilograms is women’s weight, arms like a heavyweight, the screech of drilling, shriek of milling, screech of grinding, file by hand, up down, the stack of plates shrinks, the other grows, […] after eight hours I don’t know who I am. (86)

And there are some great characters. The other down-and-outs who drink at the Three Roses could have emerged from the Commedia del Arte. Semmelweis-Marrie, Rampen-Paul, Klunzer-Lupo and Noppe. The wonderful partner in crime from her schools days, Katka. Various teachers. Her mother’s hammy lover. The sinister Queck and Manfred who end up drowned …

Gabriela is the narrator of the novella. From the writing emerge the sense of things happening to Gabriela, her lack of control over the events, her escapes and the bleakness of her life.

Kerstin Hensel

Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in what was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. She studied in Leipzig, medicine and literature. She publishes poetry and plays as well as novels. Dance by the Canal was her first novel.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, published in German in 1994, and in translation in 2017 by Peirene. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja

For another review of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, go to the blog ALifeinBooks.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are three recommendations from those I have already included.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Berofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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