Tag Archives: Women in Translation

MALEFICIUM by Martine Desjardins

31 Aug

Last week I was nervously waiting at the eye doctor (nervous mainly because of the pandemic, and a woman sitting just a smidge too close, though everyone was masked if not double-masked) and reading Maleficium*, a slender novel-in-stories by Martine Desjardins (trans. Fred A. Reed and David Homel), when I came upon the chapter “Oculus Malignus,” a 19th century confession from a maker of tortoiseshell eyeglasses who has recently gone blind. (*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)

The speaker had traveled to Muscat in search of tortoiseshell. There, in addition to slaughtering turtles, he meets a missionary with a scar on her upper lip and “irises […] of an acidic ocher hue.” The missionary shows him her pince-nez, much finer than any tortoiseshell he’d ever seen. Greedily, he asks where she found such material, and she is happy to oblige. By staring directly into the sun, “her lachrymal glands [would secrete] a substance that solidified when exposed to sunlight, and formed scaly tears.”

All of the stories are sensory-rich confessions, nearly all from greedy men who had traveled from Montreal east in search of some prized exotic material. They all come upon this mysteriously seductive woman with the scarred upper lip and some other monstrous quality. They all suffer horribly for their transgressions. As other reviewers have noted, this could be a bit repetitive, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the particular twist Desjardins puts on each tale. The gem-like prose, even when discussing all manner of effluvia, is a joy to read.

Here is one more example that captures the beautiful but bizarre storytelling, this time about the woman’s ear:

“The circumvolutions formed a perfect helix at the tip of each lobe, and the vortex with its spirals drew me into the mysterious orifice of her ear canal. I would have liked to place my eye against it, as a keyhole; through a kind of subtle intuition, suddenly I was sure I would find the key to new architectures there.”

The saffron-rich first story inspired me to make a saffron-infused gin cocktail for the virtual version of Publishing Cocktails’ annual summer book swap. Last summer, when an actual book swap was possible, I gave one of my absolute favorite books, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and received Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s What Diantha Did. I hope next summer it will once again be possible to actually foist a favorite on a fellow book lover.

Magda Szabó’s THE DOOR

28 Jun

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I’m so glad I finally read Magda Szabó’s The Door (trans. Len Rix), which Michael has been urging me to read for years. Set in Hungary after World War II, The Door is a rich exploration of the complicated friendship between Magda, a writer, and her formidable housekeeper Emerence. The mysteries that surround Emerence and her past give her a witchy quality. She almost never allows anyone inside her home where there are nine cats and, Magda guesses at one point, furniture and china looted from a Jewish family during the war. Here is Emerence bottling cherries for winter as she and Magda discuss the recent suicide of Emerence’s friend Polett:

The stream of cherries tumbled into the cauldron. By now, we were in the world of myth—the pitted cherries separating out, the juice beginning to flow like blood from a wound, and Emerence, calmness personified, standing over the cauldron in her black apron, her eyes in the shadow under the hooded headscarf.

The slow revelation of Emerence’s life before and during the war is balanced with a clash of personalities as Emerence foists her ways upon Magda’s life, such as throwing a bit of hot mulled wine at Magda to get her to drink it when she is distraught over her husband’s surgery. She is an infuriating, fascinating character, one of the most complex I’ve encountered in recent memory.

There is something about Emerence’s strong personality and guarded history that reminds me of my great-grandmother from Budapest, who I didn’t know very well and who I wrote about in my piece “Threads of Memory” in Jewish in Seattle. There is something about the metaphor of the door that has me scrabbling at it, anxious to understand so much that I never will. It’s the sort of anxiety that fills novels; one day when it is safe to travel to Budapest I will do so, if only to be physically in that city, to be closer to that which I can never fully understand.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

21 May

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful triptych of a novel, exploring the lives and perspectives of three polar bears in captivity: a Soviet circus performer, her daughter Tosca in an East German circus, and Tosca’s son Knut in the Berlin Zoo.

A desire for connection—with humans, other animals, and ancestors—weaves in and out of the story. Of course, food always captures my attention, so here is the matriarch connecting with her soup:

In the mirror I saw my red-smeared lips, a masterpiece of the beets. I’d never eaten root vegetables voluntarily, but when a beet came swimming in my bowl of borscht, I immediately wanted to kiss it. Bobbing amid the lovely dots of fat floating on top—which at once awoke my appetite for meat–the beet was irresistible.

The unnamed matriarch pens her memoirs, struggles with an unscrupulous publisher, travels to East Germany and then Canada, where she gives birth to Tosca. The second section of the novel, which appeared at first to be from the perspective of a human performer in an East German circus, seemed a bit slow to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was because the stress of the pandemic had shortened my attention span or because Tawada’s fun imagining of a polar bear’s mind was so refreshing that I was eager to return to it. But her use of perspective is slippery; it’s thrilling to learn the human was trying to write Tosca’s story, but, as befits a human, was making the story about herself. For this problem, Tosca offers writing advice that is at once practical and surreal:

“First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.”

“Are you planning to come inside me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m scared.”

We laughed with one voice.

Tosca’s son Knut rounds out the story. We meet him as an adorable tiny cub nurtured by the zookeeper Mattias:

Knut would feel the trembling of these delicate human fingers, hear the oceanic sounds emanating from Mattias’s entrails–and Knut’s abdomen would take up the tune, trembling in harmony.

The zoo, the media, and politicians hold up Knut as earth’s savior from climate catastrophe. That is, until he is no longer cute. While Knut’s section feels a bit didactic at times, hammering in the point that society doesn’t care about things that aren’t cute, it is unfortunately warranted given how much work there is left to do to prevent catastrophe.

In any case, there is much more to Knut’s story than the issue of cuteness, which I won’t spoil. The novel’s gorgeous ending brings together Tawada’s playfulness with perspective throughout the book in a manner both uplifting and astounding. Read this book, and do something for our planet, please. Compost, start your own vegetable garden, green your roof, plant a tree or five million.

“Crowd-sourcing the canon” in The Seattle Review of Books

30 Aug

The sixth Women in Translation Month is coming to an end soon. It was an atypical WITMonth for me, with the cross-country move and so many of my to-read books still in storage. Still, I’m excited to read Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate (trans. Katy Darbyshire), which Michael reviewed for The Seattle Review of Books. And, for the same publication, I interviewed Meytal Radzinski, the founder of WITMonth, about her project to crowd-source a new canon, 100 Best Books by Women in Translation.

I was excited to see some of my nominations on the final list, such as Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (trans. Martha Tennent) and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz). And a good number of books in my to-read pile are there too, if I can just get them out of their boxes! I hope to start with Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear (trans. Susan Bernofsky). Did any of your favorites make it to the list or pique your interest?

Umami by Laia Jufrese

23 Aug

Snapseed 5I first came upon Laia Jufrese’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes) thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s personalized recommendation system, Your Next 5 Books. Of the five books recommended, Umami zoomed to the top, as I have a soft spot for precocious 12-year-old narrators and an inclination toward foodie things. (You can see the whole list they recommended to me here.)

Umami is not a food novel in the sense of Like Water For Chocolate (which is not a criticism of either book and is just an observation) and it doesn’t just follow the travails of Ana, the Agatha Christie-gobbling, traditional Mexican-gardening tween. There are five narrators in this achronological story, each grappling with grief. Ana is creating a milpa in her parents’ underutilized garden, part of the mews in which they live. Doctor Alfonso Semitiel, an anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic food systems and brought the term “umami” to the Western world, owns the mews and lives there too. He named each of the houses of the mews after each type of taste: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Umami.

Alfonso is a widower, Ana’s little sister Luz mysteriously drowned two years before the novel opens, and Ana’s friend Pina (named after the contemporary dancer Pina Bausch) and Pina’s father Beto have been abandoned by her mother Chela. Ana, Alfonso, and Luz all narrate their own chapters in the first person. Pina and Marina, another resident of the mews who babysits Ana and who suffers from depression, are narrated in the third person. There’s a lot going on here, and it took me a while to get into the flow of the book. Though I enjoyed Pina and Marina’s chapters, Ana, Alfonso, and Luz were more compelling to me. Their wordplay was snappier (though Marina invents names for colors, like “obligreenation…Green out of obligation”), their interests more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel close to every narrator, and the voices were not wildly different. Ultimately, what pulled me through was the mystery of Luz’s drowning, gradually revealed through her narration, using the fairy tale-ish perspective of a five-year-old. The other hook came somewhat late in the book, two creepy AF dolls, one of which can breathe.  The fabulist in me was charmed by this surprise, and they become quite a heartbreaking addition, in the end.

 

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

Review of Alicia Kopf’s BROTHER IN ICE in The Seattle Review of Books

8 Aug

Brother-in-ice-WEBI’m happy to have my review of Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) over on The Seattle Review of Books today. Here’s how it begins:

If you’re a fiend for story, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) will not necessarily scratch your itch. But if you crave novels that put the “novel” back in novel — here mashing up research in arctic exploration with travelogues, diary entries, diagrams, photographs, text messages, and the economy of Facebook likes — come a little closer, friend.

Continue reading

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

On WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:

IMG_4968

In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

Miscellaneous updates: a q & a at The Seattle Review of Books, a review of DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR, an author-editor panel

7 Jul

 

My, My, My, My, My by Tara Hardy

Some heartbreaking poems I’ve been reading.

The Seattle Review of Books invited me to participate in their fun & breezy column, “Whatcha Reading?” I touched on dark psychological fiction, heartbreaking poetry, an essay on the cleverness of crows, and more. Something for everyone! Plus: a preview of some Women in Translation Month picks.

Over on the Magic Realism blog, Zoe Brooks had this to say about Daughters of the Air: “In every way this is a mature intelligent book which may not suit all readers, but it is an example of how magic realism is so suited to ambiguity and  to difficult subjects.” You can read the whole review here.

 

Also, I wrote a very personal essay about life choices here on Healthline.

Finally, this Monday at 6:30 pm at the Phinney Neighborhood Association, I will be participating in a panel discussion on the author-editor relationship at the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild. The panel will include Dave Boling, author of The Lost History of Stars and Jamie Swenson of the University of Washington marketing and communications department. Matthew Bennett of the guild will moderate. Not in town but curious about the topic? You can tune in live on YouTube.

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.

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