Three Reads for Women in Translation Month 2018

An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:

 

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]

Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”

I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.

Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.

 

Favorite passage:

“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”

 

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]

Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.

My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.

One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.

With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.

 

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran

[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]

In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.

Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.

It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.

 

Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?

26 thoughts on “Three Reads for Women in Translation Month 2018

  1. * whisper …. Ferrante … neither did I.
    But I heartily recommend Han Kang’s The White Book, a somewhat mysterious, evocative autobiographical meditation, wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one.

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  2. I struggled with My Brilliant Friend but loved the rest of the quartet (though I don’t think Ferrante is quite as groundbreaking as others seem to). If The Lost Daughter is in the same vein as My Brilliant Friend I’ll give it a miss.

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  3. I haven’t read The Lost Daughter, but I loved the quartet and Days of Abandonment. Sky Burial rings such a bell, but I didn’t think I had read it. Just checked, and I have – nine years ago. I read five books for #WITMonth my favourite was probably The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers.

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    1. Sky Burial is an odd little book. I picked it up on a whim from a charity shop earlier in the year to complete a 3 for £1 sale! I’m fairly interested in Tibet, but I think there are probably better books about it.

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  4. I haven’t read any Ferrante – still waiting for the hooha to die down so that I can decide about her on my own – but The Lost Daughter does seem a bit…meh. I only read one book for #WITMonth, Convenience Store Woman, but it was great.

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    1. I’ve heard good things about The Days of Abandonment, but at this point I doubt I’ll read any more by her. I believe My Brilliant Friend is being made into a miniseries with ‘regular people’ (not trained actors) playing the major roles.

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  5. I liked the weirdness in The Lost Daughter, but I can totally see it putting some readers off.

    I just finished reading Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux, which is translated from French. I loved it!

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  6. I failed with WIT month as usual! I have never even fancied Ferrante, let alone read her! Not sure why, although I do shy away from things that have a big buzz around them. I think that’s the problem with short stories that I have – they’re over so quickly and then you don’t know what happened??

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    1. I don’t like it when stories end suddenly and have no apparent meaning; I always worry that I’ve missed something! So short stories can definitely be hit and miss for me. I’m trying some more collections this month and hope to have better success.

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  7. Sometimes we just don’t click with a writer’s style and Ferrante does seem to have a very distinctive voice. I’ve only read the first one and didn’t feel the pull to return to the series, but I will try another and aim for a different mood (probably short fiction, but I’m not sure).

    For WIT month, I was aiming for Quebecois writers and read two but am also planning to read them throughout the year for the Canadian Reading Challenge which Melanie at the Indextrious Reader is hosting. There are some very high-profile Francophone writers here, whose works I’ve barely sampled and I’d like to do more exploring on that front. The LaRoux which Naomi mentioned is high on my list but I’m not sure she’d be your cuppa.

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      1. That’s on my list! Can you still read at that level in French? Or was it a challenge at the time even? I remember having to read a bunch of things in early post-secondary school classes which were WAY beyond me (or it felt like it, with all those pesky nouns) but I was expected to be able to manage it. I’m reading these in English… for now anyway. My French is comfortably middle-grade reading. I really enjoyed an Erin Bow novel and, more recently, a John Green. *grins*

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    1. Alas, my French has greatly regressed since my early twenties. Going back through university notes at my parents’ house this summer, I was amazed at the high-level work I was doing in so many subjects. If you don’t use that knowledge, though, it quickly diminishes.

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