Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi | Review

I find myself, once again, at odds with the broader literary community.

It's exhausting, isn't it? You must be saying to yourself: "Why do I even bother to read this book blog, when all the writer ever does is muse about her inability to agree with most readers about whether or not a book is good? (When she even bothers to write at all!) Isn't it obvious that she's just not a very good reader?" And, dear reader of this blog, I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you packed your bags and left these dusty halls forever. Believe me, I'm just as exasperated as you are.

The case of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone feels a little bit more complicated than most of my recent literary disagreements. To begin with, I did generally enjoy the book! I thought there were a lot of things it did fairly brilliantly, and I enjoyed many aspects of its mythology a great deal. But as I read it, I was repeatedly struck by a rather curious sensation that I was not reading something particularly... original.

If you're rolling your eyes now and declaring me to be an absolute fool, it's okay. I understand. After all, Adeyemi's young adult novel has been touted for its originality in rooting a fantasy story in West African mythology! And I don't deny that for a moment. The ways in which Adeyemi sidestepped the more common (and yes, at this point boring) Western European fantasy tropes was quite refreshing. It speaks to a boldness of storytelling. Yet it wasn't quite enough for me.

One of my favorite book blogs, The Book Smugglers, write in their Goodreads review that Children of Blood and Bone is "a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther". It's the sort of endorsement that should really set my blood pulsing. I have my issues with "Black Panther" as a film overall, but I loved the worldbuilding and the degree to which it played with different mythologies at its root. And I adore the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA).

Perhaps if I had read this review before reading Children of Blood and Bone, it would have more positively shaped my impression. Ultimately, I agree with half of the Book Smugglers' assessment: Children of Blood and Bone most definitely could feel like the lovechild of ATLA and "Black Panther", and it is precisely this that made me rate the novel that much lower.


It occurred relatively early in the book. As the narrative settled down and three POV were introduced, I was struck by several seemingly superficial similarities between Children of Blood and Bone and ATLA. We have a brother and sister from a persecuted class, in which the sister has a previously untouched form of magic and the brother is magic-less. We have a princess with a powerful artifact joining the siblings (quickly becoming a love interest for the brother). And we have her brother, the prince, hell-bent on chasing these three fugitives across a wide swathe of land in order to capture them, though his motivations may actually be more pure than previously believed... or maybe not. Oh, and the trio have to achieve their highly specific goal to restore balance... er, I mean magic... on the date of a celestial eclipse. Which is in less than a month!


With the exception of the princess, does this sound a bit familiar?


Like the Book Smugglers, my first thought was instantly of ATLA. The similarities to the story felt so pronounced that I could quickly guess how the story was panning out. In fact, it even ruined certain plot points for me because I could so easily figure out what they were supposed to be. For an "original" story, Children of Blood and Bone simply felt like a West African inspired version of ATLA, though perhaps a little bit more grown-up. Unfortunately, comparisons to ATLA will rarely end well for the piece of art in question - ATLA is one of the rare shows that works on a stunning range of levels. Few stories have quite reached its caliber, fewer still that attempted to mimic it too strongly.


Children of Blood and Bone does a lot of good things in its pages. Its exploration of racist power structures is obviously important, and there is no doubt that there's a lot to enjoy in the way Adeyemi crafts her world. I was also particularly impressed by her decision to include a meta-question about whether or not magic is inherently good and should be brought back. In the second half of the book, characters are confronted with both the importance and danger of magic. The lingering question remains, with little in the way of an easy answer or neat solution. In fact, the cliffhanger ending almost seems to emphasize the question. And when magic is so clearly linked to ethnicity and cultural expression, doesn't its suppression inherently mean the oppression of those who have it? These are interesting questions that fantasy too rarely explores, particularly when magic is a weak stand-in for real-world prejudices.


In other aspects, unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone just falls apart. First and foremost, as I already mentioned, the story didn't feel original to me. The overwhelming similarities to ATLA (just swap the roles of a couple characters and you're good!) had me rolling my eyes, rather than delighting in the story as an homage. It's possible that this is simply my own, unfair jaded reading, but I couldn't shake off the feeling the entire time I was reading and I grew tired of constantly comparing certain creative choices with those that so neatly aligned with those from ATLA. It also left me cold whenever the book did diverge, because it felt like too little too late. At the end of the day, it felt too familiar, and not in a way that gave me warm, nostalgic vibes. (Maybe if I had seen ATLA as a child and not as an adult just a few years ago...?) 


It's not just that, though. The book also does a fairly bad job as distinguishing the voices of its three POV characters. Our magical Avatar stand-in (or rather, Aang-Katara mix), Zélie, doesn't sound all that different from her fierce enemy-later-love-interest (Zutara wish-fulfillment...?) Inan, nor from his sister Amari. I often forgot whose chapter I was reading until a reference to one of the other characters clarified it for me, and that is not the way POVs should work. The characters had such distinct character traits, yet they ended up feeling so similar on the page.


And there's also the writing.

Or rather. The melodrama of the story.

The way every line of moderate importance gets its own punchy paragraph.

But then these are quickly followed by more punchy paragraphs.

The chapters are short and dominated by writing of this style. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with punchy chapter-ends as a concept. I actually kind of love them as a way to build drama. I rather write that way myself, with all my sentences that begin with "but"! But... the insistence on having so many dramatic pauses and paragraph breaks left me tired. It felt like I was reading a book that simply hadn't been edited properly. Rather than feeling focused and tight, every chapter felt like it lost some sort of thread as it tried to sound more and more dramatic.

If it sounds as though I'm being unduly harsh on Children of Blood and Bone, I... don't really mean to be. It's not a bad book! But it's also not as great a book as I was hoping. Even setting aside ostensibly personal things like the ATLA comparison (which is clearly very subjective, since different fans had different reactions to the degree of similarities), I was deeply bothered by the way the romances were written. I thought the pacing was rushed (largely due to the compressed time-scale the book had to work with). I struggled with the writing in many parts. But I also liked a lot, which left me feeling almost more disappointed. I was looking forward to this book more than almost any other recent YA, yet even something so universally acclaimed let me down somehow. Children of Blood and Bone may simply emerge as another example of hype not bearing out, but considering the praise, it's hard not to wonder at this point what is wrong with me specifically.

Friday, January 25, 2019

An open letter to Elena Ferrante | Frantumaglia

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It's a little odd for me to be writing this post in the form of an open letter. I could, after all, just write a real letter, I suppose, but it feels so unlikely that it would ever reach you (and thus, anyone) that I find myself more inclined towards simply writing an open letter, sending it out into the void known as the internet, and hoping that maybe (maybe!) you'll see this letter someday and find it interesting or worthy of your time.

I've finished reading the collection of letters and fragments published in English as Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (translated by Ann Goldstein and a few others). It was, I have to admit, a bit of an odd, at times unsettling read for me. The first section was perhaps the least interesting, to a certain degree, because I have yet to read Troubling Love. I know, I know, what sort of fan am I? (I also haven't read The Lost Daughter, and I've had that on my shelf for almost four years! I am soundly ashamed...) I definitely want to read it now, but it complicated my ability to read Frantumaglia, since I tried to skim through the early section and had to skip entire portions. I suddenly feel as though I'm missing a whole lot of necessary context to understand and engage with your writing, but there you have it.

The unsettling part for me, though, wasn't so much in the content. I've thought a lot about narratives over the past year or so, specifically the degree to which modern journalism is built around the idea of building narratives from nothing and then perpetuating them by giving them more and more airtime. So it becomes easy to craft a narrative about, say, a certain politician. Or about a certain demographic. Or even craft a narrative about a complex conflict or disagreement. It's enough to suggest that there is a narrative, and then build a whole story around that suggestion.

And as I read your repeated, almost exhausting (frustrated?) responses to journalists and readers persistently questioning you about your "identity", I grew angry. Truly, I grew angry for your sake. I realize, rationally, that these journalists weren't coming from my perspective of reading your interviews/letters/responses one after the other and could thus see with cold clarity the degree to which you have explained your stance over the course of almost thirty years, but it seems to me honestly shocking how persistent they are in disregarding your obvious wishes. Why every interviewer felt the need to re-ask the same questions that they knew (and cited!) from previous interviews about information they felt they deserved to know... I'm sorry, I truly am.

I was struck by your response and how it ties into this question of narrative that I've been obsessing over for so long. You say it exactly right - the story comes from the fact that the media wants there to be a story. After all, many writers don't engage in much publicity of their works. There's nothing too shocking about wanting to stay out of the limelight or writing under a pen name. Would anyone have even noticed if you'd used a fake jacket photo and written a bland blurb about living in a fake town with your fake children and your fake dog? I'd offer my photo, but seeing as I was barely alive when your first novel was published, I don't think it'll fly.

I wish I could undo the nonsense that others have asked you. I wish I could remove the question from our lexicon. And yet you see, even without me asking the questions (because, frankly, I don't think it's necessary; my curiosity is secondary to my respect for an individual's privacy and I steadfastly refuse to read or acknowledge attempts to dismantle it), I have to address it. It's become a necessary part of the story of your works. How exceedingly disappointing and frustrating. Here's to hoping the narrative will truly die down, and with that I will leave the matter behind.

There are so many interesting points raised within the pages of Frantumaglia that it's a little overwhelming to try to address them all. I honestly don't think I can, and as I write these words it occurs to me that perhaps I also shouldn't. I'm not nearly clever enough to be able to adequately address so much of what you have written about your own works, and I'm the sort of reader who doesn't retain very much in the way of plots or individual lines from a text, rather holds on to the emotions I felt while reading, which means that I can hardly be viewed as an expert on any book I haven't reread at least a dozen times. (And I have only read each of your works once, alas. This will change soon.)

I think the biggest point of contention I have with you is about feminism. While not as ubiquitous as the Big Question That Shall Not Be Named, it's a topic that cropped up again and again in many of your interviews. The evolution of your response to the question was actually fascinating to me, particularly the way you seemed almost cautious to use the label in the 1990s, and then more confidently embrace the term (and adjacent phrases such as "the patriarchy"!) by the early 2000s. I found some of your comments disappointing, though. I'm not going to argue how you view your feminism, particularly when your writing has inspired so many women readers (young and old) from a deeply feminist perspective. Death of the author and all that. But I find your characterization of young feminists to be somewhat concerning.

Are there young feminists today who don't fully appreciate what battles feminism won in the past? I'm sure! I also have no doubt that you have encountered modern feminists who perform a sanitized, stripped down version of feminism that feels as though it is little more than a game. I certainly have! But the vast majority of young women that I know who identify as feminists are nothing like what you write. I am nothing like what you write. And I am not quite "militant" myself (though I think I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable with the term as you seem to be). I feel you have engaged in a rather serious act of oversimplification, viewing the young generation as lazy and substandard simply because you are unfamiliar with what our causes actually are. I'd also argue that the degree to which so many of my feminist friends adore your novels is an indication that we probably speak a much more similar language than you realize.

It's an odd experience, reading a book that feels so intimate while being thoroughly repetitive. I'm not saying that to be cruel, it's obvious to me why themes repeat and recur. When journalists constantly pose the same questions, it seems inevitable. Unfortunately, it does complicate matters from my own critical perspective; I can't quite say that I loved the book when I glossed over so much of it. Some of your conversations are so detailed that they also felt like an infringement upon my own interpretations of the text. As interesting as it is to read, it's not necessarily something I want to adopt. Does that make sense?

I'm glad I read Frantumaglia, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have spent this time with you. I like your writing and I like what you have to say about it, even if we don't always agree. I feel that you approach the world in an interesting way, which probably explains why I like your novels - they seem to capture a perspective that I connect with, even when I have nothing in common with the characters or the narrative. It was an honor to get a glimpse of some of the thought process behind your writing.

Sincerely yours,
Meytal (aka Biblibio)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

DNF | "House Arrest"

Noa Yedlin's novel בעלת הבית (House Arrest) won Israel's top literary prize in 2013. It's a novel that had been largely praised and admired, plus it seemed like Yedlin was an up-and-coming star I ought to actually read (I've had her earlier novel, Shelf Life unread for... years). It turned out that the same thing that kept me from ever actually getting around to reading Shelf Life (an odd pretentiousness that has kept me away, again, for literally 7ish years) kept me from getting into House Arrest.

The truth is, I abandoned House Arrest around a third of the way through not even because I thought I couldn't finish it. The style is clear enough that I probably could have managed to finish, plus there's a certain swiftness to the writing that makes it generally pretty "readable" (ah, that word). But here's the thing: I got stuck somewhere around a third, my attention drifting instead to other books. And when I came back to finish reading the book for my "partially read" challenge in the Great Book Buying Ban, I realized I didn't want to.

I didn't want to spend any more time with the insufferable characters that populate House Arrest, I didn't want to have to listen to the obnoxious main character (Asa), a man so pretentious I almost wished he really existed in real life just so I could smack him. I didn't want to spend any more time in a book that feels like it starts 70 pages too late, taking its time to "establish" the characters before getting to the drama that the back cover has already revealed.

One of the things I've been trying to work on in recent years is abandoning books more easily. And it's true, sometimes my motivations aren't entirely fair. Like here. House Arrest probably gets better not long after the point I abandoned it. I'm sure the internal character conflicts grow more interesting. Maybe even the characters themselves become less annoying (though I doubt it). I kept feeling like there was something I was missing; here is a novel that presents one of the more privileged portions of Israeli society, yet continuously casts them as hero-victims. There seemed to be such a huge dissonance between the world Yedlin expects me to recognize and the real world. This, I should note, is actually quite common in "well-received" Israeli literature, particularly of the sort that wins the Sapir prize (indeed, I rarely like the books they select, and even those I did like fit this description).

And so... I abandoned House Arrest. Maybe someday in the (far off) future I'll try to read it again. For now, I have removed the bookmark, placed the book on a high, far-off shelf, and dusted my hands.

Friday, August 31, 2018

WITMonth Day 31 | Where do we go from here?

I always have mixed feelings about the end of WITMonth. Part of me is thrilled that another successful WITMonth has come and gone, with readers actively engaged, excited, and taking part in the women in translation project, seeking out new books, and learning more. Part of me is melancholic, remembering that despite the world of good that may come out of WITMonth (and I do believe that every single book read or discussed throughout WITMonth is a wonderful world within itself), it remains a sequestered achievement, with most readers and literary outlets still swayed by existing biases throughout the year. And another part of me is anxious that nothing is going to change, that despite our best efforts and the increased profile of WITMonth (growing from year to year!), things remain static and that women writers from around the world will always fall behind, either in favor of men writers in translation or in favor of English-language women writers.

I've already discussed some of my goals for the women in translation project's future, how much I'd like to see it go beyond a minor niche and become a reasonable part of the larger feminist diversity movement. But that's not the only goal I think we need to have in mind as readers. Recall that WITMonth is our opportunity to broaden our horizons. That means that yes, we should make sure that we're reading books that extend beyond Europe, Eastern Asia, and Argentina. Yes, we should make sure we're reading books by and about queer women (or nonbinary or trans people). Yes, we should include books by and about disabled women. Children's literature. Genre literature. Nonfiction. Feminist texts and science books and history.

It also means honing in on the fact that WITMonth should not be limited to English-language readers and bloggers. Readers should feel at home discussing and promoting women writers from their own languages, as well as translations between different languages. The same way that I discuss Israeli women writers who have yet to be translated, I would love to see readers promoting Sinhalese women writers or Thai women writers or women who write in indigenous languages. I've loved seeing tweets this year in languages I could only partially understand; I would love to see many more such posts and discussions. This isn't - and should not be - an English-limited project.

I've also already talked about how I'd like to see things change. Literary gatekeepers need to step up and take action. Readers need to hold them accountable. These are all perfectly doable and they should not be limited to August. WITMonth? More like WITallthetime!

As for myself...

Five WITMonths. Five years of hosting this wonderful project. I'm not quite ready to give it up yet, but I do have to admit that it's grown well beyond me at this point. At the very least, I am confident that WITMonth will take place (and successfully!) even if I do not post daily next year. And I may take a few steps back. You - all of you - have made WITMonth happen in the most incredible and beautiful way. We are building a movement here that is growing by the day. Bookstores, libraries, publishers, reviewers, and readers - together, we are all making it easier to find and read books by women writers in translation.

August may be over, but WITMonth never really is. Not for me, anyways.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

WITMonth Day 30 | 15 WITMonth Hits


Well, here we are. Almost at the end of WITMonth, wrapping things up, getting ready for the coming year. But what about books that have already been popular? What about all the books that didn't make it into specific genre lists, or suddenly had a resurgence in popularity among readers, or have remained staples throughout all five WITMonths? Don't those books deserve some attention too? Certainly! And so today's list is a list of 15 books that have been (and remain!) big WITMonth winners among readers. Some are very recent releases, others have been around for a few years, and others still are modern classics that continue to be popular throughout WITMonth. Of course these are not the only WITMonth hits, but I decided to opt for titles that haven't already been listed elsewhere this month in my recommendation lists and go for slightly different choices. Ready?

  1. The Summer Book - Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal): Vignettes of a young girl and her grandmother's slow summer on a small Finnish island.
  2. The Vegetarian - Han Kang (tr. from Korean by Deborah Smith): The gradual erosion of a woman who abruptly decides to go vegetarian.
  3. Go, Went, Gone - Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): An exploration of the European refugee crisis through the eyes of a German professor.
  4. Flights - Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Jennifer Croft): A series of separate stories and anecdotes, building on the idea of flights and travels.
  5. The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): Gentle friendship and family blossoms between a professor with an inability to retain new memories, his housekeeper, and her son.  
  6. Last Words from Montmarte - Qiu Miaojin (tr. from Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich): The Taiwanese classic of queer love, heartbreak, and sorrow.
  7. My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante (tr. from Italian by Ann Goldstein): Volume one of the international phenomenon, introducing two childhood friends and tracking their lives and struggles as they grow to adulthood.
  8. Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto (tr. from Japanese by Megan Backus): A young woman turns to cooking as a means to channel her grief, as well as finding a new family.
  9. People in the Room - Norah Lange (tr. from Spanish by Charlotte Whittle): An atmospheric, dreamy series of imaginations. 
  10. The Hunger Angel - Herta Müller (tr. from German by Philip Boehm): Political, tense, and unrelenting, the story of a young man sent to a Soviet work camp.
  11. Panty - Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. from Bengali by Arunava Sinha): The feverish, loosely written account of a woman caught in a fantasy, or perhaps simply reality.
  12. Umami - Laia Jufresa (tr. from Spanish by Sophie Hughes): In a small housing complex, residents fumble through new and changing realities, grief, and moving on, with stories unfolding in parallel and in reverse.
  13. Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye (tr. from French by John Fletcher): Three stories detailing the lives of three women, living between two worlds and caught in complicated circumstances as they attempt to survive.
  14. Eve Out of Her Ruins - Ananda Devi (tr. from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman): A spare, powerful account of the struggles of young Mauritians, coming of age through violence and anguish.
  15. August - Romina Paula (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft): A young woman returns to her childhood hometown to confront the ghosts of her past.
I could easily have made this list longer. More expansive. Frankly, it could also be more inclusive! But these are definitely among the most popular books in the WITMonth tags and I thought they deserved their moment in the sun. And you, dear readers? What are your WITMonth hits?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WITMonth Day 29 | Going mainstream

I often worry about WITMonth being too niche. It feels like something that shouldn't be particularly complicated, yet it's so foreign to so many readers that there clearly is something about reading women in translation that hasn't quite broken into the mainstream. Literature in translation at large remains this odd sort of genre (even though it isn't a genre!), only occasionally breaking into the mainstream.

I've had a lot of goals for WITMonth over the years. Most of them have even come to pass, with things like the new releases database, recommendation lists, library and bookstore recommendation tables, and more growing out of this once smaller venture. There have also been new things, like this year's WITreadathon on BookTube, which has been an absolute delight to follow (where I've been able) and which I'd love to see happen more in the future as well.

But I think I'm left with only one more real goal, and it's a fairly straight-forward (if not simple) one: I want to see WITMonth go mainstream.

Does that make me sound like a sell-out? Or like I'm aiming too high? Because truthfully, I recognize that going mainstream is a lofty goal. After all, this is a project that focuses on books that aren't typically in the public's eye. Most literature in translation remains published by independent publishers (heck, even AmazonCrossing isn't exactly mainstream), with little widespread publicity or hype like most Anglo titles. (I say most, because of course there are huge problems within the English-language literary community as well when it comes to marginalization, but this is not my personal focus, important as it may be!) To then select from within this small category of books even fewer books that just so happen to be by women/trans/nonbinary authors is almost laughably specific. How could this ever become a commonplace movement?

I believe that it's possible, though. I really do. I've seen WITMonth grow from ten bloggers cheerfully doing their thing to a worldwide movement across multiple platforms with hundreds of participants and active involvement on the part of publishers, translators, booksellers, and libraries. WITMonth has not, it's true, been extensively covered in most of the mainstream media book pages, but it has been mentioned in a few over the years. There are no universally beloved celebrities touting the importance of reading women in translation, yes, but there are passionate readers around the world (literally!) who are encountering this project for the first time every day. And most readers eagerly embrace this project, recognizing their own prior biases and seeking a way to rectify them. Readers want to encounter new worlds, from new perspectives.

My recurring theme this WITMonth has been about action, whether when addressing publisher imbalances or our own reading biases. And before that, I also talked a lot about why I felt that what was missing from WITMonth was the larger feminist movement. In my mind, these two themes are how WITMonth can go from being a niche, popular blog-movement to a worldwide phenomenon, recognizing the need to promote women writers from around the entire globe. It's time for literary-minded feminists to fight for internationalism as a part of intersectionality, it's time for gatekeepers to acknowledge their importance and help open the gates, and it's time for readers to make clear that things cannot stay static forever.

There's nothing niche about the concept of women writers in translation, after all, and there shouldn't be anything niche about recognizing the need to promote those writers within a system that periodically disadvantages them. There is no reason that every reader wouldn't be able to find excellent books by women in translation, from all over the world (remember all those "10 Recommended" lists this month?), which means there is no reason that every reader in the world won't be able to take part in - and fall in love with - WITMonth.

Let's go mainstream, folks.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

WITMonth Day 28 | 10 Recommended Thrillers/Mysteries


One of the most popular genres across the world is undeniably thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. Ranging from cozily whimsical to terrifyingly cold-blooded, these genres have become increasingly prevalent in recent years within the literature in translation niche, boosted in large part by an uptick in Scandinavian crime literature in particular. These are also genres that have long been well represented by women writers from all over the world, writing in many different languages!

  1. Out - Natsuo Kirino (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): A crime sets in motion a psychological thriller set in the lower-middle classes on the outskirts of Japanese society.
  2. Fever Dream - Samanta Schweblin (tr. from Spanish by Megan McDowell): Not a thriller in the most traditional meaning of the word, but a pulsing, eerily suspenseful novella.
  3. The Good Son - You-jeong Jeong (tr. from Korean Chi-Young Kim): This psychological thriller seeks to understand the mind of a killer, from his point of view.
  4. Last Rituals - Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (tr. from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder): When a young man is brutally murdered, a lawyer sets out to investigate, finding herself involved in a world of historical intrigues and dangerous rituals.
  5. Blind Goddess - Anne Holt (tr. from Norwegian by Tom Geddes): A tale of violence, crime, and corruption, led by a lesbian detective trying to uncover the truth.
  6. Thursday Night Widows - Claudia Piñeiro (tr. from Spanish by Miranda France): Three women in an affluent upper-middle class community find themselves widowed, following the murder of their respective husbands.
  7. The Lady Agnès Mystery - Andrea H. Japp (tr. from French by Lorenza García): A historical mystery set in Medieval France, full of intrigue and religious danger.
  8. In the Distance With You - Carla Guelfenbein (tr. from Spanish by John Cullen): A literary thriller centered around Chile's history and a mysterious author.
  9. Confessions - Kanae Minato (tr. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder): After the death of her daughter, a teacher seeks her revenge on those responsible: her students.
  10. Eva's Eye - Karin Fossum (tr. from Norwegian by James Anderson): The "Norwegian Queen of Crime" in a set of two murders and the single mother who gets caught up in the investigation.
You'll perhaps have noticed a few things about this list. First, it's rather high on titles from very specific parts of the world (and much lower from others). Second, it unfortunately doesn't have all that much on the cozy end of the scale. And third, there are, unfortunately, a few cases of dead women here (though I tried to avoid them as much as possible)... However, it's important to remember that with crime fiction going through a major boom right now, women in translation follow. Many prominent women crime writers from Scandinavia have been translated as a result of the increased interest in "Scandi noir", and hopefully many more from the rest of the world will soon follow!

Monday, August 27, 2018

WITMonth Day 27 | More things from other people!

Lots of amazing things still happening around the internet, even as WITMonth begins to wind down:

And of course, as always, there's so much I'm still leaving off. But WITMonth isn't really limited just to August, is it? We'll just keep going into September!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

WITMonth Day 26 | 10 Recommended Kids and YA Books


Literature in translation is, alas, too often associated with stuffy, long, pretentious novels by dead Russian men, and as something uniquely mature. But what most readers don't realize is that many childhood classics from around the world actually do get translated and shared, even in English! Children are not lacking for any literature in translation, whether it's picture books, chapter books, or YA epics. While most of the translated literature by women writers has thus far come out of Europe, there is still plenty from around the world as well. Let's dive in.

  1. Maresi - Maria Turtschaninoff (tr. from Finnish Swedish by A. A. Prime): A dark but ultimately optimistic YA fantasy that marks the beginning of a fiercely feminist series.
  2. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren (tr. from Swedish by Florence Lamborn, among others): The children's classic full of adventure and excitement continues to charm and delight children to this day, without them even realizing its original language isn't English!
  3. Samir and Yonatan - Daniella Carmi (tr. from Hebrew by Yael Lotan): Two boys - Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish - in a children's hospital begin to form a friendship in the shadow of Middle Eastern conflicts of the 1990s.
  4. Tomorrow - Nadine Kaadan (tr. from Arabic by the author): The story of how a child sees war around him and live on. (Expected publication: September 1st, 2018)
  5.  The Happiness of Kati - Jane Vejjajiva (tr. from Thai by Prudence Borthwick): A girl comes to terms with her absent mother's advancing illness, while finding her own path to happiness.
  6. Wonderful Feels Like This - Sara Lövestam (tr. from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg): A music-loving teen befriends an elderly former jazz player, as their stories unfold side-by-side.
  7. Moriboto: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi (tr. from Japanese by Cathy Hirono): A prince, his bodyguard, and a hero's journey, wrapped up in mythology and subversive gender roles.
  8. Inkheart - Cornelia Funke (tr. from German by Anthea Bell): The magic of books literally comes alive in a swashbuckling, fantastical series.
  9. An Elephantasy - María Elena Walsh (tr. from Spanish by Daniel Hahn): No adventure can manage to not be whimsical when an elephant is involved!
  10. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow - Faïza Guène (tr. from French by Sarah Adams): A cynical teenager comes of age in the suburbs of Paris, struggling to understand her place in the world.
It's important to note that this list was also very difficult to compile, and that for a field allegedly "dominated by women", children's and YA literature in translation remain sadly almost as imbalanced as adult literature when it comes to women writers. Kidlit and YA are critical in normalizing the existence not only of literature in translation as a concept, but also in allowing children and young adults to experience worlds utterly different from their own... but also the same! In the same way that kids "need diverse books", kids also need books that reflect the wonderful range and diversity of the whole world (and not just one language).

I've left off a few of the big ones here (Heidi, the Moomins...), but what else do you think is missing? What are your favorite kidlit or YA books written by women in translation? And if you read in languages other than English as well, what kidlit/YA books from your native language by a woman writer would you like to see translated into different languages?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

WITMonth Day 25 | Stats (part 3) | What we need to do now

By now, I hope you've read the women in translation publishing stats for 2017 and for 2013-2017. I hope you've seen a few of the responses I got from publishers regarding their low translation rates of women writers. I hope you've thought a lot about where we are as an English-language literary environment, that the great improvement of the past few years (in which the women in translation movement has grown and hopefully also become prominent) has not yet appeared in publishing itself. Nor has it entirely appeared in literary journals, either, with most review outlets and journals still largely reviewing with a bias towards men writers in translation.

The fact is that many readers still also struggle to read more books by women in translation, whether simply because there aren't all that many books to choose from in the first place (true for translations at large as well, but there are still more than twice as many books by men writers for each book by a woman in translation) or because those few books that do get released don't necessarily get the same attention in the media as comparable men writers do. The situation is improving somewhat in terms of media (Words Without Borders and LARB are good examples of journals that achieve a pretty good level of parity), but there's no denying that the overall trend is somewhat stalled for publishing and it doesn't seem like it'll get better by itself. Most of the publishers with the worst translation rates of women writers don't seem to have made any particular effort in improving their statistics (though of course I did not contact everyone...), nor do a few of them seem particularly bothered by the situation.

So here's what we need to do now:

Hold publishers accountable.

Part of the reason I decided to email publishers to ask for their statements on the women in translation problem was to find out, quite simply, whether they had thought about the issue at all and whether it concerned them. What we learned from the three responses that I got back is that some publishers do care and are making active efforts to improve the situation. I particularly appreciated the frank response from NYRB, who pointed to precisely the need to seek out forgotten or waylaid books by women writers, specifically in spite of the difficulty. This should be true, I feel, for all publishers of "niche" or otherwise marginalized types of books.

But alongside those publishers that do care, we found out that there are publishers for whom there does not exist a "women in translation" problem (and not because they publish books by men and women to equal degree). It's not for nothing that neither Archipelago Books or Dalkey Archive responded to my emails; these were not my first attempts to contact either publishing house about the matter. It's possible that my emails simply never reached their targets or that they've been set aside during the August slump, but... it's time to hold publishers accountable. This means all publishers that fail to meet a basic standard, no matter how defensive they get or how wonderful we find them in general.

There's no easy way to do this, unfortunately. The fact is that even the most egregiously imbalanced publishers of literature in translation still publish phenomenal books by WIT that deserve praise and attention (not to mention those excellent books by men in translation as well). Archipelago, after all, is responsible for bringing to light one of my favorite books of the past few years (Cockroaches). Europa for its part (as they mention in their response) have played a huge role in mainstreaming literature in translation (and women in translation specifically) with authors such as Elena Ferrante and Muriel Barbery. Dalkey has done tremendous work in bringing more international literature to the front stage in the first place, with certain series including books by women from around the world. The same can also be said of academic publishers and just about any of the other publishers of literature in translation. There is no doubt that when publishers that rarely publish women writers get around to doing so, the results are worthwhile.

It's just that it isn't enough. And moreover, simply letting those good books erase the fact that these publishers have embarrassingly large gender gaps in their catalogs benefits absolutely no one, nor should publishers be let off the hook just because of it. Let's be clear about something: There is no lack of literature by women writers from around the world. There is no lack of books by women writers from almost every language on Earth. There are imbalances, yes, but why should those imbalances make their way into translations when most publishers are selecting at most a handful of books to translate from around the world every single year? Perhaps it is time for publishers to prioritize books by women writers. Perhaps it is time for publishers to look at their yearly lists and make sure that yes, parity is being reached. Perhaps it is, finally, time for quotas, despite however much I may have resisted them in the past.

In a sentence: Most publishers of literature in translation need to be publishing more women writers. That's it. That is all they need to be doing.

But the most important thing that readers can - and should - do is make their position very clear. It's time for us to stop tip-toeing around publishers that don't translate women writers, whether they are major publishers of literature in translation (Dalkey, Archipelago, Pushkin, Gallic Books), big-name publishers that occasionally publish translations (Knopf, HarperCollins, FSG), or academic publishers (Yale University Press, Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press). It is time for us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that low translation rates year after year after year don't magically add up to balance when you look over time. (And with regards to academic publishers, it is worth remembering that the stats are actually a lot worse than they seem from my stats posts, since those do not take into account retranslations of classics or nonfiction titles, both of which are categories overwhelmingly dominated by men.)

WITMonth has been extraordinary for a lot of reasons (in my mind, but I suppose I'm rather biased!), but I think one of the things that it really does brilliantly is give people the exposure they need to a lot of books by women writers in translation. While, yes, some readers sequester their women in translation to August alone and rarely read WIT beyond that, most end up with so many new additions to the TBR that they inevitably shift more of their reading towards parity. Even if it hasn't been enough to cause a significant market shift, there are literally hundreds of new readers around the world who are aware of the fact that fewer women writers than men are translated into English (not to mention other languages!) and have been exposed to new and brilliant books by those existing WIT as a result of WITMonth and the women in translation movement at large.

And readers have power. The more we purchase books by women writers in translation - during WITMonth or throughout the year - and the more we discuss these books in equal measure with books by men writers, the more publishers will see that readers really do care. The more publishers are also explicitly contacted and challenged for their imbalances, the more (I hope) they will begin to fix the situation.

Readers also have a role to play.

It's not just that we can influence publishers (though that's huge). We as readers (and reviewers and bloggers and vloggers and feminists) need to begin challenging ourselves. Ask yourself: How many of the books I read per year are in translation or international? Of the literature in translation that I read, how many of those books are by women writers? In the same way that diversity movements have (rightly) pushed for a broader range of books reflecting the world's diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, religion, and more, we also need to recognize that true diversity means reading books from all over the world, in all languages, and by all genders. We will inevitably have biases in our reading and it is highly likely that most readers will still have Anglo-preferences (especially considering how few YA/genre books actually get translated versus how many are read...), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to move towards something better.

So, dear readers, I ask that we also pledge to read more balanced ourselves. WITMonth is wonderful as an opportunity to put the spotlight on women writers in translation, but it should not be the only time we read WIT. Nor should we allow ourselves to simply follow existing publishing biases without doing our own work in selecting books with parity in mind. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that since embarking on the women in translation project, I have read significantly more WIT than MIT. Yet my Goodreads Translations shelf is only just reaching parity, simply because so much of my youth focused on men writers. Don't forget that parity still does not equal equality!)

We have a long way to go before we reach parity. A much longer (likely impossible) path continues from there to true equality. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I do mean all of us - readers, translators, and publishers alike. Each of us can and must do our part. Whether it is ensuring our individual parity or publicly demanding more from those around us (particularly those in gatekeeping positions), the time has come. We must - each of us - contact our favorite publishers, whether to praise them for their efforts and improvements or to point out their flaws and demand better. We must make our positions clear. Address our own biases. Change our own behavior, if need be.

As I said in my previous post: No more.

Friday, August 24, 2018

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Publishers respond

I left off yesterday with a cliffhanger, having presented data that shows the degree to which publishers of literature in translation have failed women writers in translation. Seeing these numbers year after year is more than disheartening, it's infuriating. At a certain point, I have to wonder what else there is left. Do I simply accept this as the industry standard and continue to promote those 30% of books by women writers that do get translated into English? Do I step back and not point to this injustice, simply because too few books in translation get published at all? Do I continue to disregard the pervasive imbalance in publishing that sees women in translation (and particularly non-European women in translation) as rarities, rather than the perfectly prevalent thing that they are?


I contacted a handful of the major publishers of literature in translation described in yesterday's post, presenting them with this data and asking for public comment. I only emailed publishers with easily navigated websites in which I felt I could verify my data personally, so this of course offers only a narrow view of publisher responses. Someday, I hope to contact the rest of the repeat-offender publishers. (Feel free to do that as well, I think this is a case of "the more, the merrier".) Even with these limitations, I found the responses (and silences...) quite revealing. 

First up, Europa Editions initially pointed to 2017 as a unique outlier, citing a higher rate of publication of English-language women writers and translations of books by women from two new countries for them ("And it was the year we published our first novel in translation from the Japanese (written by a woman) and our first Mexican novel in translation (also written by a woman), and both of those books were high priorities for us so we tried to clear some space around them."). As the five-year data shows, this is only partially accurate: Yes, 2017 is an outlier, but it is not the first year that they've stumbled in terms of publishing women in translation. The official comment from editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds pointed to Europa Edition's involvement in WITMonth at large, and their perceived role in the publishing industry overall: "Our commitment to publishing women writers is hardly an august enthusiasm and it is certainly not circumscribed by our affinity for the goals of the WIT initiative. It is year-round, multifaceted, decades-long, and, I would argue, has done quite a lot to change industry- and market-thinking about the prospects for women in translation in recent years."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have omitted from this statement a single sentence at the end that I feel characterized my original email as an attack on the publisher. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly remind publishers that these stats are in no way meant to be a declaration of war or as any sort of indication that your publishing house is not making any effort. They are, quite simply, a reflection of reality, and if that reality shows that your publishing house isn't doing very well, then I will continue to comment on it and expect better. I will get back to this...

Next, New Directions responded that they were surprised by the low rate, and hoped that the rates had been improving (which, as I reported earlier, they have somewhat!). They reaffirmed that they "are trying", and cite the women in translation movement (and global stats like those I have been publishing here over the past several years) as having "influenced our approach to the issue, which I believe is reflected in more current lists. (As I bet you know, it’s a time-consuming process, finding the books you want to translate from abroad and then getting them translated, edited, presented in catalogs, and out into the world.)  I think ND is moving in a good direction." As I mentioned earlier, this effort is clearly seen in the gradually improving ratios at New Directions, and it is gratifying to know that this has been borne of a concentrated effort. Given where we are, this how it should be.

Finally, New York Review Books responded with a similar acknowledgement of the situation, writing: "It’s pretty disappointing. We should really be doing better. This is not meant as a defense or justification but just to note that we don’t do new fiction and the history of literature is that most books published in all languages have been written by men, which is the source of our books, whether reissues or new translations. Again this should just be a push to work harder to find good female writers from the past." This, too, is an excellent recognition of the problem at hand and I hope that we will begin to see a change in the actual publishing rates in the near future.

Neither Archipelago Books nor Dalkey Archive responded to my Tweets or emails. This is not the first time I have attempted to contact either publisher and received no response.

There are a few takeaways from these responses. First, it is wonderful that publishers recognize that they have an imbalance and are searching for ways to improve them. Really. It is absolutely wonderful. I love that many publishers have embraced WITMonth and I think that it's absolutely the right first step in becoming more aware. Each publisher also pointed to their achievements in publishing women in translation until now (as well as forthcoming titles), which I also think is pretty great. It's good to promote books by WIT, keep at it!

Second: Defensiveness is not a tactic. The truth is that sometimes - typically - human beings mess up. I can say that as a reader, I know that I don't read nearly as diversely as I'd like to. I ultimately read very little queer lit, not enough Southeast Asian literature, etc... We are all influenced by bigger forces than our own taste or interest. Publishers are no different. But pointing out that we have these biases isn't an attack, nor is it an erasure of those few books you have published by women in translation. (I'll get back to this later as well.) 

Here's the problem: We all know that it's not enough to simply state your support of a project. Archipelago, for instance, are one of those publishers that have used the #WITMonth tag in order to promote books translated by women (and not women in translation), all the while steadfastly ignoring any and all attempts to communicate with them regarding their abysmal publication rates. The defensive stance that many publishers take in response to literally pointing out the facts to them is disappointing in large part because it shows a lack of commitment to the cause itself, where the bottom line is ultimately consistent parity. It's not enough to have published men and women in equal rates for one year.

But what do we do to make that better? Europa suggest - and perhaps with good reason - that this isn't something that can be solved with a snap of the fingers, rather that there is a process. To be honest, I don't think that this approach is inherently wrong. In the years I've worked on this project, I've seen how many factors play into the global imbalance. It's not inaccurate to say that the US translation market is influenced by markets in other countries, biases in other countries, and imbalances in other countries. But as I've explained many times, I also think that it's a cop-out to use those as an excuse not to publish more women in translation in the Anglosphere (or other languages, for that matter!). Translation is already so highly selective and curated that yes, it might require some more effort on the part of publishers. 

But the time has come for all of us to do our parts in ending this imbalance.

To be continued...

(Yes, I'm sorry, but this is just getting really long and I want it to be as coherent as possible and it's already pretty messy!)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

WITMonth Day 23 | Stats (part 3)

Introduction
Here's the thing about math: Cold as it may be, it can often hide pervasive truths. Numbers don't lie, but they can mislead. They can omit. And sometimes, even as they tell the truth, they hide its depth and scope.

I've been publishing yearly statistics for a while now, but each time it feels like a snapshot. Every year, I get comments along the lines of "okay, but this is just an outlier" or "the average is skewed" or something to that extent. If we're being fair, these arguments aren't wrong. If a publisher is consistently doing good work in terms of publishing women in translation and suddenly has a bad year, isn't it a little silly to single them out? Wouldn't we expect to see some fluctuation in the rates of publication and publication trends themselves?

And so I did what any reasonable scientist would do: I decided to look at the bigger picture. Instead of analyzing data year-by-year, I decided to look at the past five years as a whole (2013-2017), representing the five WITMonths that mark this project.

The problem is that the data doesn't actually change. Yes, numbers may hide nuances, but in this case... they don't. That generally unchanged average of 28-30% publication of women in translation? It's unchanged because most of the prominent publishers of literature in translation haven't changed anything. Not in their averages, and not year by year. As you will see, there's a disheartening lack of progress. Hopefully seeing these numbers laid out will trigger the realization that yes, something needs to change.

Results


The first thing I decided to look at was the total number of books published from 2013-2017. I selected major publishers based on their overall translation publication rates, and mapped out the flat sum of books published by men or by women. As you can see, overall publication rates vary widely between different publishers, with some "major" publishers only releasing 15 or so books over five years. Even so, it's very easy to see that the overwhelming majority of publishers not only publish more men than women in translation, but do so at staggering rates. This becomes even more apparent in the figure below:


If 30% has been the approximate base rate of publishing women writers in translation for every year since 2013, it seems likely that most major publishers would simply hover around this rate. It turns out that this isn't actually true, and that the influence of a single publisher - AmazonCrossing - is even greater than I had previously assumed (alongside the significantly more minor effect of smaller publishers, which I did not include in these counts). If we take the grand sums of all of the top publishers, the rates of publication of women writers look fairly similar to those yearly values: 31% books by women writers. But if we remove AmazonCrossing, the rate fairly plummets to 24%.

It's not hard to see why. Out of the major publishers, only two even reach 50% (Deep Vellum at a solid 1:1, AmazonCrossing at 61%), with 5 additional publishers crossing the industry average of 30% (Other Press, Open Letter, HMH, Bitter Lemon, and Atria). There are then a few publishers that hover around the industry average (Europa Editions, Seagull Books, Graywolf, Minotaur) and publish just over 25% women in translation, followed by a shocking sequence of 15 big-name, high-prestige, acclaimed publishers of literature in translation that don't even come close. Publishers like Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago, Gallic Books, Knopf... it's not even an imbalance, as much as an outright lack.

This made me wonder whether I was missing something fundamental. In order to make sure these numbers weren't as a result of a single outlier, I looked at each of the five years individually for six major publishers, going both by sheer numbers of books translated and publishers who were frequently associated with publishing literature in translation.






There are a few interesting takeaways from this breakdown. First: It's interesting to note that AmazonCrossing wasn't always as focused on publishing women in translation as it is today. It also shows that the 60% rate cited above is a low-ball, shifted somewhat because of 2013. Since 2014, they have published comfortably more women writers than men in translation. They remain the only major publisher to do so. (Remember that many smaller publishers such as Feminist Press consistently focus on books by women writers, even if I do not include them specifically in these stats posts!)

Things get a little complicated after that. I actually first want to highlight Open Letter, since they're a bit of an interesting case in this group. With an overall rate of 34%, they fall somewhat on the side of better publication of women writers. But as you can see, this mostly follows a back-and-forth fluctuation - one above, one below. They also never quite make it to 50%. In my mind, Open Letter serves as a great reminder of what happens if you just follow the market flow without any critical assessment. This is the ultimate baseline... and no, it isn't good enough.

Next we have publishers like Europa Editions and Seagull Books. Both have rates just under the industry average (~28%), where it seems like a single year pushes that number just a bit lower (for Seagull, 2015; Europa, 2017). Even so, neither publisher quite manages to break free of the industry average. Europa does have one year of publishing parity, but it too is an outlier in a different way - it's the year in which they published the least amount of books in translation overall. Seagull's situation is a little more erratic, again showing how prevalent the baseline 30% really is.

In the next category, we have an interesting, singular example of a publisher that has been improving in their stats from year to year: New Directions. Despite publishing approximately the same number of books every year since 2013, they have steadily increase the share of books by women that are released per year. While they have yet to crack the base threshold (and have an abysmal 19% rate overall from 2013-2015), there is a clear upward trend. New Directions thus emerges as a unique beacon of hope when it comes to publishing women writers in translation, suggesting that this movement may actually lead to concrete change in the near future (I will discuss this more in depth in tomorrow's post).

Finally, we have a series of publishers that not only have low average rates, not only seem to publish very few women writers in translation, not only don't really change from year to year, but also simply go entire years without publishing a single book by women in translation. Take Archipelago, which does not actually publish all that many books in translation every year (but are uniquely associated with translated literature) as an example. This is a publisher that comfortably did not publish a single book by a woman writer in translation in both 2013 and 2015. Dalkey Archive is its counter, a publisher that puts out a massive amount of literature in translation every year, yet also managed to go the entirety of 2014 without publishing a single book by a woman writer in translation (I've written about this before, of course, quite specifically). Gallic Books, Pushkin Press, and NYRB all also have at least one year in which no women in translation were published. Interestingly, for both NYRB and Gallic Books, years in which women weren't published amount to the years in which they published fewer books overall. This should not be an excuse, however; books by women in translation are not simply add-ons, with room leftover only after the men have had their chance. In the other direction, Pushkin Press published its highest number of books in 2015, the same year it published zero books by women in translation.

There is, however, important context missing behind this data. First: The wonderful Three Percent Database on which I based these numbers has its own biases, for instance the limited focus on fiction and poetry, the lack of YA/children's literature, the omission of previously released/translated titles... Several of these publishers (Pushkin, Archipelago, NYRB) publish many additional books in translation that simply aren't getting counted here. However. I looked over the catalogs of each of these publishers, specifically those books that do not make it into the Three Percent Database. The situation not only does not much improve, it often gets worse. Archipelago, for instance, has an entire publishing line specifically for children's literature, in which I found a rate of below 20% (children's literature! that field allegedly so dominated by women!). For many academic-associated publishers, the situation is far worse, as there is a huge imbalance in nonfiction translations.

W - women, M - men, B - both

These numbers are, quite frankly, enraging. They demonstrate an across-the-board lack of interest in the women in translation project, alongside the global stagnation I've described in previous posts. Publishers of literature in translation are supposed to be showing us the best that the world has to offer, but how can that possibly be true if we are only seeing a tiny fraction? (And don't forget that an overwhelming slice of these titles is from Western/Northern Europe!) Something has to change.

...and so I decided to do something about it.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

WITMonth Day 22 | 10 Recommended 20th Century Classics


We've covered older classics, but what about books from last century? Hundreds of thousands of brilliant books by women from around the world were written in the 20th century, so this list will of course be woefully incomplete. But it can be a jumping off point!

  1. The Complete Stories - Clarice Lispector (tr. from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson): A stellar collection of a 20th century icon, spanning works that weird, wonderful, and powerful.
  2. Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset (tr. from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, among others): The historical epic that remains popular to this day, detailing the lives of ordinary women in late medieval Norway.
  3. The Bridge of Beyond - Simone Schwarz-Bart (tr. from French by Barbara Bray): A transcendent, powerful, and absolutely unique novel about the memory of horror, within a life of beauty.
  4. History - Elsa Morante (tr. from Italian by William Weaver): History, but only of a certain time and place, lingering somewhere between the intimate story of a single family trying to survive fascist Italy, as well as the larger story of Europe during the same period.
  5. Woman at Point Zero - Nawal El Saadawi (tr. from Arabic by Sherif Hetata): What brings a woman to the edge of her life, having murdered a man and remaining unfazed in the face of her impending execution? A stunning feminist exploration of the lives of poor, under-educated women and the struggles that emerge.
  6. So Long a Letter - Mariama Bâ (tr. from French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas): Written in the form of a letter between two friends, a Senegalese woman reflects on her life and her status as a woman.
  7. The Door - Magda Szabó (tr. from Hungarian by Len Rix): A complicated friendship with a complicated woman leads to a fascinating meditation on a writer's relationship with her housekeeper, neurosis, and life.
  8. The Book of Lamentations - Rosario Castellanos (tr. from Spanish by Esther Allen): A fictional account of an indigenous Mayan Mexican uprising, shining light on the racial boundaries, oppression, and violence that dominated the early 20th century.
  9. Masks - Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter): Two men seek the love of a young widow, whose life remains intrinsically linked to her former mother in law.
  10. Mother of 1084 - Mahasweta Devi (tr. from Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay): A mother remembers and grieves for her son, killed in during an attempted communist uprising.
There are, as usual, many more titles that could have made this list. Some have already appeared in other lists this month (The House of the Spirits, to name but one example), others may yet make future lists (The Summer Book), and others still will just have to wait their turn! What are some of your favorite 20th century books by women in translation? What do you think I've missed in this list?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Monday, August 20, 2018

WITMonth Day 20 | 10 Recommended Pre-20th Century Classics


One of the most common (dismissive) responses to WITMonth's existence is that of course there is bias, since women did not historically write as much as men. While true that women often did not have the same opportunities to write as men did, it is simply not true that women did not write at all. Nor is it true that women only began writing from a certain period and onward. In fact, women have been writing and telling stories for literally hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. The first credited novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Some of the finest ancient poetry was written by women. Not being a literary scholar or historian, it's certainly hard for me to point to the best classics by women in translation... but it's not impossible! So here is just a taste. (And keep an eye out for the 20th century edition!)
  1. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (tr. from Japanese by Royall Tyler, among others): The literal first novel, a genuine classic and cornerstone of literary culture at large!
  2. The Book of the City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. from French by Rosalind Brown-Grant, among others): Before feminism was feminism, there was Christine de Pizan, eloquently arguing for women's rights (albeit through a deeply Christian, European, and at-times narrow-minded lens).
  3. The Clouds Float North - Yu Xuanji (tr. from Chinese by David Young and Jiann I. Lin): One of China's early poets, with poems ranging from the personal to the atmospheric.
  4. The Princess of Clèves - Madame de Lafayette (tr. from French by Nancy Mitford): Romance, intrigue, and drama combine in a novel that is clearly rooted to its time period, but also surprisingly modern.
  5. Indiana - George Sand (tr. from French by Sylvia Raphael): A pre-feminist novel exploring the rights of women (and poor women) in a world that simply does not view them as worthy.
  6. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings - Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, among others): Nun, writer, proto-feminist, and scholar, Juana Inés de la Cruz is not the name of a leading Mexican prize for Spanish-language women writers for nothing!
  7. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (tr. from Japanese by Meredith McKinney): Musings on life, poetry, art, and boredom by a writer who would probably feel perfectly at home on Twitter... even though she wrote over 1000 years ago.
  8. The Appeasement of Radhika - Muddupalani (tr. from Telugu by Sandhya Mulchandani): An erotic poem about Krishna and Radha, groundbreaking in the sexual liberties its women have, as well as having been a Telugu classic for hundreds of years.
  9. Birds Without a Nest - Clorinda Matto de Turner (tr. from Spanish by J. G. H., among others): A Peruvian novel detailing the struggles of indigenous South Americans, heaping criticism on existing power structures and demanding a better future.
  10. The Book of Mahsati Ganjavi - Mahsati Ganjavi (tr. from Persian by Paul Smith): A 12th-century Persian poet and court-member, whose surviving works primarily focus on love and emotion).
Here's the thing: This list isn't easy to compile. It's not all novels. It doesn't quite cover the entire world. It's limited in terms of the backgrounds of the writers (almost all of whom were at the very top of their respective cultural classes). But it also is a list of classic women writers, and given another hour or two, I could come up with another 10, 20, or 50 more titles (especially if I let myself include a lot more European women!). There are dozens of brilliant women writers from all eras whose works have been translated into English; there are thousands still more who have yet to be translated.