Tag Archives: Women in Translation

Summer Reading

25 May

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Every summer, I am simultaneously excited for and stressed out by the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures Adult Book Bingo program and Women in Translation Month, which happens in August. These are supposed to be fun efforts to read a lot, and they are fun, and yet I develop anxieties about time. (Ah, time. I am forever losing to time.) In any case, the 2018 book bingo card was recently released, and I eagerly printed out a copy and penciled in my aspirations for the season.

So, what are some books on my docket? My ideal reading diet consists of reading fiction, poetry, and nonfiction simultaneously, and my current reading manages three bingo squares:

  • Takes Place in the Area You Were Born: 10:04 by Ben Lerner. Lerner will give a talk at Hugo House on August 9, on the novel as a curatorial form. Intriguing!
  • Poetry or Essays (why, why aren’t these separate boxes?): To Repel Ghosts by Kevin Young, a book of poetry inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which I picked up at the Brooklyn Museum while on book tour.
  • Finish a Book You Started and Put Down: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The second section of this book, on processed food, was dry and slow, and I almost gave up on it. But I am super interested in the section on the rise of organic farming and look forward to the final section on foraging food, the reason I picked up the book in the first place. As I slowly work on a series of lyric essays about food and culture, I am finding Pollan’s research and writing mostly delightful and always informative.

Of course, none of these books are by women, nor are they in translation. So, here’s what’s next for me:

  • Written by An Author From Another Country: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf
  • Award-Winning Author: The Appointment by Herta Müller
  • Fiction: The Hottest Dishes of Tatar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

I also participated in the Seattle Public Library’s Your Next Five Books program, asking for smart, zippy books by women, ideally in translation. I’ll let you know what they recommend!  (In the meantime, if you are looking for recommendations from me, here are my previous posts on women in translation.) What are you reading this summer?

UPDATE (5/30/18): Here are the five “smart, zippy books by women” that the Seattle Public Library recommended. I am particularly excited about Umami by Lala Jufresa! From the title, to the author’s name, to the promise of a precocious 12-year-old girl protagonist (a soft spot for me), this book will for sure go on my Recommended by a Librarian bingo square.

“And Time Was No More” by Teffi

3 May

SubtlyWorded

The physical object that is Teffi’s Subtly Worded elicits in me a desire for extravagance. The texture of the cover, the deckled edge pages, the small purse-sized shape, the delectable bird pulling upon the woman’s hat ribbon—it is all delicious. (I have confessed here to hugging bookcases before; I also hug books.) Content-wise, I was intrigued with what perspectives Teffi, a Russian who fled the Revolution for France and has been compared to Chekhov, might offer.

It took me a few years to get through this collection, however. The prose is gorgeous, and I don’t fully understand why I couldn’t connect with these stories more. They seemed to lack a certain undercurrent. Perhaps they demand rereading. I did not enjoy Chekhov’s “Gusev” initially; I only came around on that story when rereading.

I decided to finally finish Subtly Worded this past New Year’s Eve. Michael and I went to the Fireside Lounge at the Hotel Sorrento (which is one of my favorite places in Seattle; check out their monthly Silent Reading Party). Our waitress had a wholesome yet aristocratic look about her in a cream-colored silk blouse; it seemed somehow fitting to the world of Teffi. There was live jazz and a roaring fire. And a chanteuse with a melodica, which she defined as the love child of an accordion and harmonica. Michael read Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which he adored (another book to add to my WIT pile). My cocktail tasted like chocolate and pine-sap.

“And Time Was No More,” my favorite story in Subtly Worded, is set in a cabin in the woods and moves with a dreamy end-of-life nostalgia. I wanted to copy out nearly every luscious paragraph. Here’s one that sums up the theme and impressionistic atmosphere:

“Sunset, on the other hand, is always sad. It may be voluptuous and opulent, and as richly sated as an Assyrian king, but it is always sad, always solemn. It is the death of the day.”

In the hotel lounge, a young woman strutted her newfound charms (plunging neckline, stilettos) beside her parents. Meanwhile, in Teffi: “At least once in your life you should hear a fox singing.”

The story turns quite philosophical. A mysterious hunter tells the narrator, “Just think of me as a composite character from your previous life.” The philosophical conversation between hunter and narrator got to be a bit too much, but the conceit, this sort of last-day-on-earth mélange of memory, did stick with me. Plus who doesn’t want to hear a fox singing?

Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

26 Apr

KusamaLast summer, I had the good fortune of catching Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d had a taste of her work at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen  in Rotterdam, which owns a Mirror Room in its permanent collection, so I was ready to soak up more polka dots and tubers. One thing I learned at the SAM was Kusama’s obsession with pumpkins. (See Infinity Mirrored Room–All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016.) Pumpkins are a fairy tale-ish interest of mine (an essay for another time), and when I saw her autobiography Infinity Net (trans. Ralph McCarthy) in the museum shop, I needed to have it.

Well, I was disappointed that Kusama has little to say about that purported obsession, beyond this: “I was enchanted by their charming and winsome form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness. That and its solid spiritual balance.” Painting that gourd, and onions, was a form of practice. I’ll just have to think on what she means by “solid spiritual balance.”

Pumpkin-disappointment aside, Infinity Net is a fascinating portrait of an artist’s ambition and drive. Escaping her hometown of Matsumoto City, where it was respectable to be a patron of the arts but not be an artist, she landed in New York City after a brief sojourn in Seattle. She received early encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, who worried she’d starve in New York City and invited her to New Mexico. But Kusama declined; NYC was where stars were made. So she would suffer, working despite conditions such as this: “New York is almost as far north as Sakhalin island, and I froze to the bone and developed a pain in my abdomen.”

Between her singular focus on repetition (to counter hallucinations, to obliterate herself, to lose herself in infinity), an incredible work ethic, and caring friends like O’Keefe and Donald Judd, she soon gained notice. She also developed a relationship with the reclusive Joseph Cornell; he was the only woman he’d had a relationship with, and would keep her on the phone for hours. His neediness eventually led to some shocking meanness. While recovering from prostrate surgery, he asked if she’d come visit. She said, “When Dali wants to see me…he sends his Rolls Royce for me. Shouldn’t you show more respect for the love of your life?” Yowzah. So he sent a woman in a Mercedes, and she describes their last encounter in graphic, unflattering terms. Still, she calls him her greatest artist friend, and I’m not sure if it is to make up for her admitted cruelty or because she genuinely feels that way, and/or whether she feels that way because he wrote her many poems and worshiped her, and she seems pretty set on lasting fame and stardom.

Kusama returned to Japan in the 1970s and has been voluntarily living in a mental institution there since 1977. The final chapter, on her drive to make lasting art as she comes nearer to death is particularly moving: “And no matter how I may suffer for my art, I will have no regrets. This is the way I have lived my life, and it is the way I shall go on living.”

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Reviewed in The Seattle Times and Included in Seattle Review of Books’ “Seattle Novels That Made My Year”

4 Jan

The term “dumpster fire” has been used in reference to 2017 at least several million times. At one point in October, I considered taking some classes on how to cope with anxiety and insomnia that were organized specifically in response to our collective ongoing sense of doom. I didn’t though—because I was overwhelmed! Ha.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND, illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

From my New Year’s Day reading, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

Despite everything, I need to celebrate 2017 on a personal level. Daughters of the Air, which I’d toiled over for years, finally came out, and people are reading it and telling me they are enjoying it! Michael and I celebrated the holiday season with candles and latkes and lights and dim sum and snow (!) and The Shape of Water (a beautiful love story!) and chocolate peanut butter pie and New Year’s Eve back at the Hotel Sorrento’s Fireside Lounge for reading (me, Teffi’s Subtly Worded, him Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which I’m happily adding to my Women in Translation Month queue), writing, live jazz, people watching, and bubbles. What more could I ask for?

Dark chocolate with candied roses

Dark chocolate with candied roses, a holiday treat. Resolution: eat more flowers.

The day after Shelf Awareness called Daughters “a striking debut from a writer to watch,” The Seattle Review of Books included it among five Seattle novels that made Paul Constant’s year:

Anca Szilágyi’s Daughters of the Air is a fantastic debut — a magical realist fairy tale set in gritty New York City. It’s the kind of book that leaves you utterly confounded at the end, as you try to remember all the twists and turns that you took along the way. It feels like an impossible book, somehow — a product of alchemy, a creation of unearthly talents.

Wow! The book hasn’t been panned yet, but when it does, I’ll hang on to these two reviews for dear life. I was also super happy to see Tara Atkinson’s novella Boyfriends included in the end-of-year list; I gobbled it one sitting and highly recommend it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was thrilled to see The Seattle Times reviewed Daughters too—my first review in a major American newspaper!

Anca L. Szilágyi’s intense debut novel, “Daughters of the Air,” locates a deeply personal story against the surreal backdrop of [Argentina’s Dirty War].

 

I’ll be moseying up to a newsstand later today so I can rustle up the paper and feel the newsprint on my fingers.

In other news…

  • Every year, I strive to collect 100 rejections. (Why? See this wonderful Lit Hub article by Kim Liao.) In 2016, I made it to 106, plus eight acceptances. In 2017, I garnered 93 rejections and 16 acceptances. This is actually bad in terms of my other annual goal, which is to be rejected 90% of the time. I need to aim higher.
  • There are just four spots left in my online Fiction II class at Hugo House, which begins on January 14. You can sign up here.

Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this longer-than-usual blog post! As a gift, here is a Goodreads giveaway for you. Already read Daughters? Leaving a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or Powell’s would help spread the word! You can do this regardless of how you obtained the book (other bookstores, my publisher, the library, and all that fun stuff).

Onward!

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

24 Aug

HungerAngelAfter I read The Land of Green Plums a few years ago, Herta Müller joined a short list of authors whose work I want to read all of.  I am not the sort of reader who methodically works through an oeuvre; I crave different voices. But this list includes Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Mavis Gallant. (It used to include Angela Carter; I adore her short fiction, but actually found trying to read her novels like trying to eat an entire chocolate mousse cake.) Müller’s fiction is poetic and harrowing and sheds light on the country my family comes from.  For me, she is a must.

For my third installment of  Women In Translation Month, I tackled The Hunger Angel. This novel tells the story of Leo Auberg, a young German man in Romania deported to a labor camp in Russia in January 1945. I was surprised to learn that this happened: all Germans living in Romania and from the ages of 17-45 were forced to “rebuild” the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Müller explains in her Afterword, this was something shameful that Germans in Romania only discussed among themselves, if they discussed it at all. (Müller emigrated to West Germany after being persecuted by Ceausescu’s secret police.)

The Hunger Angel meditates on objects. Life in a gulag is tedious, so in lieu of a tight narrative arc, the first two-thirds of the book move laterally from things like cement and coal to yellow sand and firs. There’s a weirdly loving chapter about a kind of shovel known as “the heart-shovel,” which, by virtue of its design, allows Leo to forget himself as he works in ways that other tools or tasks don’t.

And, of course, as the title implies, there’s a food problem. With just one piece of bread a day and two bowls of cabbage soup, and no mid-day meal, the hunger angel emerges an antagonist who skews how prisoners perceive their world and how they behave. But memories of food from childhood buoy Leo and his prison-mates. One day, every summer, his mother would take him to the Café Martini where he could gorge himself on sweets:

We could choose among marizpan truffles, chocolate cake, savarins, cream cake, nutcake roll, Ischler tartlet, cream puffs, hazelnut crisps, rum cake, napoleons, nougat, and doboschtorte. And ice cream–strawberry ice cream in a silver dish or vanilla ice cream in a glass dish or chocolate ice cream in a porcelain bowl, always with whipped cream. And finally, if we were still able, sour-cherry cake with jelly.

As if being in a gulag is not challenging enough, Leo is in the closet. When men and women dance on Saturday nights (who knew they had dances, albeit sad dances, in gulags?), he remains off to the side. Men and women couple in the barracks; he does not. Though he observes: “Half-starved humans are really neither masculine nor feminine but genderless, like objects.” Over the course of the novel, this meditation on objects also becomes a larger meditation on loneliness and longing and trying to stay alive.

Leo has a poet’s eye, and it is that vision, that attention to language, which makes reading this essential book bearable.

Silvina Ocampo’s “The Imposter”

17 Aug

ocampoSilvina Ocampo, an Argentine author who was a contemporary of Borges, writes with a strangeness that alternates between a delicious sensuality and a deep, deep creepiness. For my second Women In Translation Month installment, I decided to tackle “The Imposter” in her posthumous collection Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston. In this novella from 1948, Luis Maidaina is a young man who sets off from Buenos Aires to the more-or-less abandoned Swans Ranch taken up by another young man,  Armando Heredia, who is troubled.  Luis is to pretend to befriend Armando and keep an eye on him, reporting back to Armando’s father, who owns the ranch and is a friend of Luis’s father.

The train ride from the city to the country is ripe with color and texture: “The burning light of day was resting in all its blue brilliance on the glass, on the metal handles, on the motionless fans, on the leather seats.” A woman in white muslin covering “voluminous breasts,” daintily eating alfajores with her daughter, asks Luis about his destination and seems to know of the Heredia family as well as well Luis’s father. The town where Luis must debark is her hometown, Cacharí, apparently haunted by “a terrible Indian chief” murdered by the army a century ago, who for three days and nights yelled “Cacharí! Cacharí! Cacharí!” as he died and no one dared approach him. The woman continues: “They say that even today, when the wind blows at midnight in the winter, you can hear Cacharí’s cry.” She warns that the Swans Ranch is infested with bats and frogs and that Armando burned his horse’s eyes out with “Turkish cigarettes” because it disobeyed. Meanwhile, “the horizon made the sun look squat and almost purple” and they pass “an endless lagoon in which some sleepy flamingos were resting like flowers” and  later “a llama and…rhea lit up by the monstrous light of the train.”

The woman’s gossipy warnings set the tone for the remainder the story. Off the train a “hoarse” ranch hand who picks Luis up recalls Cacharí. In the landscape bird cries also recall that slain chief. The house is dark, dusty, leaky, crumbling. The heavy wooden furniture is adorned with mermaid tails. Armando tells Luis the Swans Ranch has no swans–his grandfather had them all killed when his Aunt Celina, swimming in their lagoon, fell ill and eventually died. After that, the family left the ranch to decay.

Despite Armando clearly posing a danger, Luis grows close to him. They talk about dreams–Armando doesn’t dream while Luis has many dreams which trouble is waking life with serious bouts of déjà vu. Armando claims he would commit a crime just to dream, that a lack of dreams feels like a lack of memory. Luis tries to uncover whether Armando has a girlfriend, whether that girlfriend really exists (or has been dead for four years), and whether to write to Armando’s father for help. Each time Armando suspects Luis of spying, he threatens to kill him. And Luis worries if he tries to escape the ranch, he will also be killed.

The story is rife with birds, strange dogs and cats, abandoned rotting spaces, and talk of tigers, doppelgängers, and frightening mirrors. The questioning of reality, memory, and imagination builds more and more, taking the story into the realm of the truly fantastic (at least, by Todorov’s definition)–where reader and character alike question reality.

Italo Calvino wrote that Ocampo “captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us” better than anyone. Borges said “her stories have no equal in our literature.” I can’t wait to devour the rest of this collection and I hope if Calvino and Borges are up your alley, you’ll read up all of Ocampo too.

“The Ball” by Irène Némirovsky

10 Aug

Golder

I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French to prepare for my language exam at UW. Among the three works I inched through, it was the only one I managed to finish that summer. (The others were Swann’s Way, which I hope to tackle again one day, though it will probably have to be in English with some kind of Proust support group, and a vintage collection of short stories in a volume designed for college students, which was kind of stodgy.)  What I remember best from Suite Française, other than the scenes of Parisians evacuating before the German Occupation, is Némirovsky’s use of light. A woman hiding in a house shrouded in trees seems trapped in something aquatic. It was then that I learned and cherished the word glaucous.

Other than the fact that the French were fleeing the Nazis, there was no whiff of anti-Semitism in that book that I, with my limited language skills, could detect. So I was surprised, when reading Claire Messud’s introduction to the collection David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair that Némirovsky was virulently anti-Semitic, a token Jew at a right-wing newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism. Not that any of this saved her in the end. (For an in-depth discussion of Némirovsky see Susan Rubin Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question.)

Michael read “David Golder,” the novel that made Némirovsky famous at 26. Though the story is well-written, the stereotypical depictions of Jewish businessmen did not sit well with him. (It should be pointed out, if you don’t know, that the stereotype of the banker Jew is a result of centuries of discrimination, as Jews were not allowed to practice most other professions or own land.) I wondered whether the popularity of “David Golder” had any connection to pandering to stereotypes. I decided to save my time and skip to “The Ball.”

Here, the Kampfs are a nouveau-riche couple who want to throw their first big party. M. Kampf “made a killing” in the Stock Market and in just four years they moved from a modest apartment to one that could accommodate (if a bit uncomfortably) 200 guests. The story was published in 1929 and you can feel the imminent doom.

M. Kampf is Jewish (alas, the Jewish stockbroker) and his wife is Catholic. They’re raising their fourteen-year-old daughter Antoinette to be Catholic. Mme. Kampf, whose past is questioned and who married M. Kampf for money, is desperate to host a glamorous party that will establish her reputation with the aristocracy. She hires a band to play the blues and the Charleston, and orders a bevy of roses, buckets of champagne, aspic, oysters, foie gras, caviar sandwiches, game, fish, petit fours, and, a modern luxury to be delivered fresh at 11 pm: ice cream.

Poor Antoinette keeps getting in the way of party planning. It is her violent emotions that attract me most to this story. Her thoughts feel the most real, compared to the somewhat flat, Mme. Bovary-esque aspirations of Mme. Kampf. Indignant, in bed, Antoinette thinks:

To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid–to be pushed around like a dog…I want to die! God, please make me die…Dear God, sweet Holy Virgin, why did you make me their child? Punish them, I’m begging you. Punish them just once, and after that, I’ll gladly die.

Antoinette’s desire for vengeance suggests something darker here than your run-of-the-mill teen anger, but it also pushes this story deliciously to its conclusion. The characters probably aren’t any more likable than in “David Golder,” not that that is a requirement for my reading pleasure. But Antoinette’s course of action moves the story toward a complex, yet surprisingly tender, picture of mother-daughter conflicts.  If you like the glamor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Stories, or coming-of-age stories in general, you’ll want to check this one out.

“Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books

10 Aug

WITMonth2017-2August is Women in Translation Month. This is the fourth year of the campaign, which was founded by literary blogger and biophysicist Meytal Radzinksi. I’m a big fan of this effort to raise awareness about women writers in translation and read more of them. And, I’m super excited to have my piece “Translation is not kale” in The Seattle Review of Books today, which discusses WITMonth in a wider context and revels in some of my favorite-favorite books. You can read “Translation is not kale” here. I’ve also got three reviews scheduled right here on my blog, starting today and continuing the next two Thursdays. More soon!

 

Women in Translation Month

26 Jul

Women in Translation Month is around the corner! Last year, I compiled a list of translated books by women that I enjoyed and created a Women in Translation Bingo game. I also wrote about novellas by Marguerite Duras and Eileen Chang and poetry collections from Rocío Cerón and Angélica Freitas.

This summer has been a bit more hectic as I’ve been teaching more, taking my second novel through an eighth draft, and researching my third novel. However! I’m excited for Women In Translation Month and wanted to share with you four books on my to-read pile.

What have you been reading? WITMonth2016

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas & Diorama by Rocío Cerón

27 Aug

Thanks to Women in Translation Month, I recently learned about two fantastic contemporary poets published by Phoneme Media, which, I must say, designs some gorgeous bilingual books.

Diorama by Rocio Ceron, translated by Anna Rosenwong, Phoneme MediaDiorama, by Rocío Cerón, is super rich and multilayered. Her long poem “13 Ways To Inhabit a Corner,” under the subtitle “Pinhole” speaks particularly to peering into something very closely. The looking is so careful, the sensual details so packed in, the poem demands and rewards multiple rereadings. Each of the 13 sections builds a particular atmosphere. In section I: “In the midst of a stampede, a hand rests on the arc of a kneecap. Cigar and smoke. Rosy cypress sleep.” And, in section VII: “Hills, clouds, boreal forest. Woman undressing on a frozen bed. Beneath the folds of her clothing a constellation of sleet.” As her translator Anna Rosenwong points out, the work is associative and hallucinatory. Other poems are more political. “DIY Instructions or the National Telluric” includes the line “civil disobedience breaks out but still the dead pile up” — a line that made me sit up out of the intense dream state of “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner.” Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, and it’s no wonder. It’s the sort of beautiful, meaty book you need to settle into, chew on, and revisit.

Rilke Shake by Angelica Freitas, translated by Hilary Kaplan, Phoneme MediaWhereas Diorama is experimental and gorgeous and challenging, Rilke Shake,by Angélica Freitas is more fun for everyone. Playful, energetic, and irreverent, Freitas takes references to poetry greats (Rilke, Keats, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and popular culture, and simply shakes. The work is sonically chewy: “I think about stravinski / and the beard of klaus kinski / and the nose of karabtchevsky / and a poem by joseph brodsky” she writes in the poem titled “what passed through the head of the violinist as he hurled toward his death against his black hair clutching his stradivarius in yesterday’s great air disaster”. She imagines bathing with Gertrude Stein, who “lets one loose under the water” and asks in “i can’t read the cantos”: “shall we free ourselves from ezra pound?” The poems do have poignant moments, such as in “sioban 4” where the speaker wonders: “does she think of me / does she also ask what happened // to the good girls of sodom, the ones who / always // kissed on the stairs / vanished in libraries / preferred to turn to salt?” I will be pushing Rilke Shake on many people. It’s too good to be missed.

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