Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

Crossing borders and defying boundaries: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.

First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.

Tilted Axis, UK edition

Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.

Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.

Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell

However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.

Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.

The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.

Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.

Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.

Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not,  Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.

The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:

No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?

Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:

What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.

When Rosie eventually begins  to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.

Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition.  Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.

“Imagination is resistance against life and nature”: Wolves by Bhuwaneshwar

In the course of a human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.
(from “Aunty”)

Some writers appear, seemingly from nowhere, burn brightly for a short time before disappearing into disarray and obscurity. Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar is one such author. Neither end of his life can be firmly dated—born in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh between 1910 and 1915, he ended his days sometime in 1957, in Varanasi, where he was last seen ill and living among beggars. In the years that intervened there was a moment when this man with an exceptional gift for words appeared poised to lead Hindi literature into the future. His promise—and his pessimism—was recognized by Premchand, the prominent Indian writer known for his dedication to social realism. By contrast, his young protégée was more subversive in his approach, intent on shattering society’s myths and illusions to reveal its underlying darkness, a vision that won him both attention and distrust in the literary community. Yet, although his career was short, bookended by poverty and neglect, he left behind an important collection of stories and plays, along with Hindi translations of Gogol and Oscar Wilde—a body of work that has tended to remain largely forgotten in his homeland and essentially unknown in the English-speaking world. Now, with the release of Wolves and Other Stories—a slender volume containing twelve of Bhuwaneshar’s melancholy tales—translator Saudamini Deo has rekindled the voice and spirit of a man whose work captures a sense of ambiguity and anxiety that seems especially timely now, the better part of a century later.

The stories that comprise Wolves were originally published between 1935 and 1941, the majority in Hans, the literary magazine established by Premchand. The Indian Independence Movement was in its final stages, as reflected in an atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades these tales. But Bhuwaneshwar is not explicitly political in his writings. He is asking more philosophical questions about what it means to be alive in a world that is increasingly inhumane and unforgiving. His mood is grim, death is a regular presence, but his characters manage to salvage some measure of humanity, against the odds.

These stories tend to feature lonely, isolated people—even if they are not necessarily alone—unmarried women, abandoned children, students, soldiers, doctors, drifters and others who, for some reason or another, have found themselves at odds with their families, communities or societies. Some of my favourite stories are centred around women. In “Aunty” Bibbo is a poor woman, old “as if she’d originated old in the womb and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period,” has been seen as ever solitary and ancient by her neighbours. But she had, in her life, given her love and attention twice over, first to her nephew, abandoned to her care when her sister died. After that child grew up and moved away, he returned years later with his own son, now motherless, and begged his aunty to take care of the child. Again Bibbo consented, at great financial and emotional cost. She has her revenge though, in the end, in a small attempt to hold on to her dignity.

The dying woman at the heart of “Mothers and Sons” is also being exploited, on her death bed as her family gather around. Seen from her perspective, she revisits her dismay and disappointment in her sons and daughter-in-law’s as they imagine her clinging to more noble thoughts and argue about medical options. As death approaches, Bhuwaneshwar captures her shifting emotional state with remarkable intimacy:

At midnight, everyone was sleeping on mattresses on the floor, only Amma was awake and, as if drowning. Wondrously, even her troubles were drowning. She started thinking of faraway things. Meaningless, unparalleled. Some house, some man, once glimpsed somewhere, she started hearing strange sounds. But this state didn’t last long. She started feeling nervous, as if she was frightened of being alone on a dark road. There was no energy in the body, she had known for a while, she had grown used to it, but she was ready to fight for that energy now. Everyone was sleeping. She could hear their breaths, she recognized them, but what is all this to her when she has no more energy?

A wide range of voices emerge throughout this collection and the settings of the tales are varied, sometimes grounded in ordinary settings—hill station, post office, train compartment—others incorporating ghostly or somewhat surreal circumstances such as “Sun Worship” which follows a doctor and a raving madman on a strange urban journey. But the crowning entry is the title story, one of his best known, which closes this volume.

“Wolves” is presented as the reported account of an old gypsy of a horrific adventure from his youth. He and his father were making their way along in their family caravan which was heavily laden with pots and pans and three fifteen year-old acrobats when they were set upon by an unruly, insatiable pack of wolves. Forced to lighten the load, first with objects, then with passengers, the wolves just keep coming, consuming everything in their way. Relentless and unyielding, the story offers little respite. But its wolves are familiar—in our world today and no doubt to a man who saw beyond the façade of his own society and turned his visions into stories, stories he would come to imitate in his own life. He was pursued by wolves himself. Bhuwaneshwar’s later years were marked by mental illness—first his brother was committed to an asylum, and then he too was lost to madness and homelessness, like a character in his final unwritten tale.

Wolves and Other Stories by Bhuwaneshwar is translated by Saudamini Deo and published by Seagull Books as the first in a new series featuring Hindi literature.