A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 10 August 2014

10 women in translation that everyone should read

You may (or may not) be aware that August is Women in Translation month in the book reading universe (#WITmonth over on Twitter), a movement being ably championed by Biblibio and I’d encourage you to give her blog a visit as she’s been exploring some great writers and great books over the course of the month. When talking about women in translation in this context, this means women writing in languages other than English being translated into English. There are, of course, many amazing female writers of colour writing excellent books in English (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulaweyo, Xiaolu Guo, Arundhati Roy to name but a few, more obvious examples), but given that books translated into English comprise such a small portion of the market, and books by women translated into English a depressingly small proportion of that, the purpose of Women in Translation month is to spread the word about this under-represented section of the writing world. Maybe you’ll discover a new, amazing writer in the process. Who knows?

I have made a much more conscious effort to try to read female writers from different cultures this year and I have to say I have discovered some amazing writers. The following represents my list of female writers in translation that everyone should read. I am aware that this list, in and of itself, is not hugely representative and I am no doubt missing some awesome writers and whole cultures (for example, I have not yet had chance to explore Middle Eastern, African, South American or non-Japanese Asian writers in any depth. The world is large.) that I haven’t yet encountered. If you think anyone is missing, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Without further ado, here are my suggestions.   

Tove Jansson (Finland)
What would my list of favourites be if it didn’t mention Tove Jansson? Written by somebody else, I think. Jansson has something for everyone, from her excellent Moomintroll books which are great for kids and adults both, to her profound and life-affirming shorts in The Summer Book and The Winter Book. Fair Play is an excellent exploration of interrelationships and The True Deceiver a cold and fascinatingly odd book. Jansson’s books are full of wisdom and insight, truth and honesty. In the words of Moomintroll:

“Just think, never to be glad or disappointed. Never to like anyone and get cross at him and forgive him. Never to sleep or feel cold, never to make a mistake and have a stomach-ache and be cured from it, never to have a birthday party, drink beer, and have a bad conscience…

How terrible.”

Elena Ferrante (Italy)
I’m jumping on the bandwagon and giving a shoutout for Elena Ferrante here, one of the most exciting writers I’ve discovered this year. Her novel The Days of Abandonment is a wild and unsettling exploration of the breakdown of a woman following the end of her marriage, in which the main character is flawed, confused, angry, vulgar and a pretty terrible mother who makes some rotten choices and does not escape unscathed.  I am reliably informed that her Neapolitan series (beginning with My Brilliant Friend) is an excellent read and I’m so confident it is, that it’s on my ‘to buy’ and not ‘to borrow’ list.   

Simone de Beauvoir (France)
Most famous for her feminist tract The Second Sex and her relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was an intelligent and driven woman who also wrote some amazing books. The Woman Destroyed, a triptych of mid-length stories, blew me away the first time I read it and should be compulsory reading for kids in their late teens as an excellent exploration of female empowerment (or the lack of it). I certainly shall be encouraging my kids to read it. It’s a great companion piece to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (mentioned above). De Beauvoir also wrote honestly and with difficulty about her relationship with her mother and the expectations placed upon her.

Fumiko Enchi (Japan)
If you’ve read this blog at all you will probably be aware that I have a particular love for Japanese fiction. It’s worth mentioning that the first credited novel, The Tale of Genji, is both Japanese and written by a woman (Murasaki Shikibu) and if you read only one novel of Japanese origin, this mighty tome is one worth selecting. But I’m not talking about Genji here (even though I am) but the equally mighty Fumiko Enchi. Her most famous work, The Waiting Years, is a tense and unsettling exploration of a Japanese marriage in which the woman has been replaced by a younger (too young) concubine. Sadly Enchi is quite difficult to get hold of in UK, but if you’re lucky and you have a great library any of her works is worth exploring.

Yoko Ogawa (Japan)
A more modern (and living) Japanese writer, Yoko Ogawa has a range of interesting work out there. My first introduction to Ogawa was the dark and disturbing The Diving Pool, followed by The Housekeeper and the Professor which, I would have to say is not Ogawa’s usual style, is just about one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read. What unites them is an intelligent style and an interesting perspective, with a definite psychological bent.

Marlen Haushofer (Austria)
Haushofer writes books that are a continuous stream of consciousness, which are honest and deep and complex whilst appearing deceptively simple. Perhaps best known for her post-apocalyptic work The Wall (also a movie), which explores the life of a woman trapped in the Austrian mountains with only a dog, a cat and a cow for company. Something has happened to the world, but she never does find out what it is. Instead she is left alone with her thoughts and fears and a journal to write her thoughts in. It is an interesting work of isolation, of the influence of society, of fear and hope. Haushofer writes powerfully of the world whilst focusing on the seemingly domestic. She is clever, insightful and deceptive and worthy of multiple re-reads.

Marguerite Duras (France)
Duras wrote strange books, as anyone who has read The Sailor from Gibraltar will know. Yet her books are intelligent and insightful, unusual and honest. Duras has a very clean way of writing, direct and precise, razor-like and unflinching in its gaze. Duras wrote about female sexuality, about passion; she wrote novels, stories, plays and prose. Perhaps most famous for writing the script to the movie Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Isabel Allende (Chile)
Allende is a writer I’ve only touched upon, and one that is difficult to categorise. Known for her magical realism works like House of the Spirits, she has also written books of historical fiction (Eva Luna), a book about Zorro, and books for young readers (Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, which is very entertaining). Allende writes about people, stories of passion (as she refers to in her excellent TED talk, which is one of my favourites) and intrigue. In her catalogue, there should be something for everyone.

Sigrid Undset (Norway)

A Nobel Prize winner, no less. Undset is known for her epic story Kristen Lavransdatter, which follows the life of a woman in 14th Century Norway. Kristen makes choices for herself, based on her desires, and has to live them out. A sinful life, as some would see it. The novel itself was considered controversial due to its frank treatment of sex and female sexuality and desire. It is an epic, engaging and involved story with life-filled characters who behave frustratingly, but truly to themselves.

Adania Shibli (Palestine)
I have read only one work by Shibli, the brief but poetic Touch, but it was a highly effective work. Her writing is beautiful yet powerful, she obscures her subject but reveals more by doing so. Her writing is pure, confusing and requires more than one reading. Shibli is a poet who writes in prose, and I can think of no better way of speaking for her than allowing her to speak for herself:

“The written words followed her eyes onto everything. Some books always stood between her eyes and all other eyes in the house, always hiding its world, which, if it appeared from time to time, appeared as a world whose words were read rather than heard, and so she did not say anything.”

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