The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2021 Runner Up + Winner

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is awarded annually to the best eligible work of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, work of fiction for children or young adults, graphic novel, or play text, written by a woman, translated into English by a translator(s) of any gender, and published by a UK or Irish publisher.

The prize launched in 2017 with the aim of addressing the gender imbalance in translated literature and increasing the number of international women’s voices accessible to a British and Irish readership.

The Long and Shortlist

Translated literary fiction makes up only 3.5% of the literary fiction titles published in the UK, though it accounts for 7% of the volume of sales. You can see the list of 115 eligible titles here, the longlist of 17 titles here (including descriptions of the books) and the shortlist of 8 titles here as shown in the image below.

In 2021, there was a runner up and a winner.

literary fiction memoir short stories novels women in translation

The Runner Up

Strange Beasts of China (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, published by Tilted Axis Press.

Strange Beasts of China Yan Ge

“Yan Ge imagines a landscape of marvels and terrors that eerily resembles our own everyday world… These fables of love and loneliness, belonging & exclusion, solidarity and otherness, assume an agile and genial English voice in Jeremy Tiang’s translation.”

The Winner

And this year’s winner is….

An Inventory of Losses (Essays/Experimental) by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith,  published by MacLehose Press.

An Inventory of Losses Judith Schalansky

Described as:

“The stylistic flair, and variety of voice, in Jackie Smith’s mesmerising translation, turn Schalansky’s reminder that ‘Being alive means experiencing loss’ into a journey full of colour, contrast and bittersweet pleasures. A thoroughly memorable winner […] that will surely endure.”

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation Longlist 2021

This £1000 prize was established by the University of Warwick in 2017 to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership. The list includes titles published in the UK, translated into English.

In 2020, A Multi-generational Saga

Last year the prize was awarded to The Eighth Life (a family saga that begins with the daughters of a Georgian chocolatier, through wars, revolutions and generations), by Nino Haratischvili, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

The 2021 prize is judged by Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett.

“These long-listed titles not only span cultures and continents from China to Georgia, and from Thailand to Poland, they also cover a spectrum of literary forms. The list includes poetry, fiction of many kinds – from futuristic fables to family sagas – as well as a range of imaginative non-fiction, from family memoir and biographical essay to social history.

In every case, the artistry of the translator keeps pace with the invention of the author. Each book created its own world in its own voice. The judges warmly recommend them all.”

The 2021 Longlist

From 115 eligible entries representing 28 languages, seventeen titles have been longlisted for the prize. (Book descriptions below are extracted via Goodreads)

The longlist covers ten languages with French, German, Japanese and Russian represented more than once. Translations from Georgian and Thai are represented on the longlist for the first time in 2021.

women in translation prize 2021

Maria Stepanova and her translator from Russian Sasha Dugdale feature twice on the longlist with In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books). Also longlisted are previous winners of the prize Annie Ernaux and translator Alison L. Strayer who won in 2019 for The Years. Writers Jenny Erpenbeck, Hiromi Kawakami, Esther Kinsky and Yan Ge, and translators Elisabeth Jaquette, Frank Wynne, are all on the longlist for the second time.

The shortlist for the prize will be published in early November. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday 24 November.

The Longlist

Nana EkvtimishviliThe Pear Field, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Fiction/Historical) (Peirene Press, 2020)

The Pear FieldIn post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020) (Memoir)

A Girls Story Annie ErnauxAnnie Ernaux revisits the summer of 1958, spent working as a holiday camp instructor in Normandy, and recounts the first night she spent with a man. When he moves on, she realizes she has submitted her will to his and finds that she is a slave without a master. Now, sixty years later, she finds she can obliterate the intervening years and return to consider this young woman whom she wanted to forget completely. In writing A Girl’s Story, which brings to life her indelible memories of that summer, Ernaux discovers that here was the vital, violent and dolorous origin of her writing life, built out of shame, violence and betrayal.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Not a Novel, translated from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, 2020) (Essays/Nonfiction)

Not a Novel Jenny ErpenbeckA collection of intimate and explosive essays on literature, life, history, politics and place. Drawing from her 25 years of thinking and writing, the book plots a journey through the works and subjects that have inspired and influenced her.

Written with the same clarity and insight that characterize her fiction, the pieces range from literary criticism and reflections on Germany’s history, to the autobiographical essays where Erpenbeck forgoes the literary cloak to write from a deeply personal perspective about life and politics, hope and despair, and the role of the writer in grappling with these forces.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Fantasy/Science Fiction) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Strange Beasts of China Yan GeIn the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people. Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.

Hiromi KawakamiPeople from My Neighbourhood, translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen (short stories/magic realism) (Granta, 2020)

People From My NeighbourhoodFrom the author of the internationally bestselling Strange Weather in Tokyo, a collection of interlinking stories that blend the mundane and the mythical—“fairy tales in the best Brothers Grimm tradition: naif, magical, and frequently veering into the macabre”.

A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a t­ree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen goes fishing on a lake no one has heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood. In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods.

Mieko KawakamiBreasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Fiction/Feminism) (Picador, 2020)

Breast and EggsBreasts and Eggs explores the inner conflicts of an adolescent girl who refuses to communicate with her mother except through writing.

Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.

Esther KinskyGrove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fiction/Travel) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove Esther KinskyAn unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

Camille LaurensLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen, translated from French by Willard Wood (Nonfiction/Art/Biography) (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged FourteenThis absorbing, heartfelt work tells the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century bohemian life of Paris.

Famous throughout the world, how many know her name? Admired in paintings in Washington, Paris, London and New York but where is she buried? We know her age, 14, and the grueling work she did, at an age when children today are in school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera; what is a dream for girls now wasn’t a dream then. Fired after  years of hard work when the director had had enough of her repeated absences, she had been working another job as the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her family fed. A model, she posed for painters or sculptors, among them Edgar Degas.

Drawing on a wealth of historical material and her own love of ballet and personal experience of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world of the artists’ models themselves, often overlooked in the history of art.

Scholastique MukasongaOur Lady of the Nile, translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Fiction/Rwanda) (Daunt Books Publishing, 2021)

Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique MukasongaParents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.

It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.

A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.

Duanwad PimwanaArid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (short stories) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams Duanwad PumwanaIn 13 stories that investigate ordinary and working-class Thailand, characters aspire for more but remain suspended in routine. They bide their time, waiting for an extraordinary event to end their stasis. A politician’s wife imagines her life had her husband’s accident been fatal, a man on death row requests that a friend clear up a misunderstanding with a prostitute, and an elevator attendant feels himself wasting away while trapped, immobile, at his station all day.

With curious wit, this collection offers revelatory insight and subtle critique, exploring class, gender, and disenchantment in a changing country.

Olga RavnThe Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Science Fiction) (Lolli Editions, 2020)

The Elpmoyees Olga RavnA workplace novel of the 22nd century. The near-distant future. Millions of kilometres from Earth.

The crew of the Six-Thousand ship consists of those who were born, and those who were created. Those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike find themselves longing for the same things: warmth and intimacy. Loved ones who have passed. Our shared, far-away Earth, now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see themselves in a new light, each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether their work can carry on as before – what it means to be truly alive.

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, Ravn’s crackling prose is as chilling as it is moving, as exhilarating as it is foreboding. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Judith SchalanskyAn Inventory of Losses, translated from German by Jackie Smith (Essays/Experimental) MacLehose Press, 2020)

An Inventory of Losses Judith SchalanskyA dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.

Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.

As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.

Adania ShibliMinor Detail, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fiction/Palestine) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Minor Detail Adrania ShibliMinor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.

Małgorzata SzejnertEllis Island: A People’s History, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Nonfiction/History) (Scribe UK, 2020)

Ellis Island A Peoples HistoryA landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

Whilst living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon. How many stories did this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life there — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will?

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

It tells many stories of the island, from Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked at the station before going on to become one of New York City’s mayors, to depicting the ordeal the island went through on 9/11. At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed the island compound spent longer as an internment camp than a migration station.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.

Maria StepanovaIn Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/historical) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

In Memory of Memory Maria StepanovaWith the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Maria StepanovaWar of the Beasts and the Animals, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Poetry/Experimental) (Bloodaxe Books, 2021)

War of the Beats Maria StepanovaStepanova is one of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers. Immensely high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged behind in the West.

War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as a third long poem ‘The Body Returns’, commemorates the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.

This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, but alters them so they almost appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, they weave together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.

Alice ZeniterThe Art of Losing, translated from French by Frank Wynne (Historical Fiction/Algeria) (Picador, 2021)

The Art of LOsing Alice ZeniterNaïma has always known  her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though many are familiar, as I have seen them reviewed and discussed. The range of genres is impressive, making it an eclectic selection. I’m interested in The Lady of the Nile, Minor Detail, and Annie Ernaux is an author I’m keen to read, though where to start, as she has seven short memoirs now in English and I keep thinking I ought to read a few in French.

Have you read or heard of any of these titles? Tempted by anything?

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

Photo by SafaPexels.com

A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

Photo by KoolShootersPexels.com

An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott

wp-1629982535768..jpgI picked up Loop for WIT (Women in Translation) month and I loved it. I had few expectations going into reading it and was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed its unique, meandering, playful style.

It was also the first work of fiction I have read, after a nine week pause, while I have been working on my own writing project, so its style of short well spaced paragraphs, really suited me. I highlighted hundreds of passages, an indicative sign.

Change. Unlearning yourself is more important than knowing yourself.

It was helpful to listen to the recent Charco Press interview linked below to understand that it is a kind of anti-hero story, inspired by her thinking about The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – of the inner journey of the one who waits, the way that quiet contemplation and observation also reveal understanding and epiphanies.

Odysseus, he of the many twists and turns. Penelope, she of the many twists and turns without moving from her armchair. Weaving the notebook by day, unravelling it by night.

Penelope and OdysseusThe narrator is waiting for the return of her boyfriend, who has travelled to Spain after the death of his mother.

His absence coincides with her recovery from an accident, so she has a double experience of waiting, a greater opportunity to observe the familiar and unfamiliar around her, to see patterns, imagine connections, dream and catastrophise.

Childhood is so uncertain, so distant. It’s almost like childhood is the origin of fiction: describing any past event over and over to see how far away you are getting from reality.

And then there is her quiet obsession with notebooks, with the ideal notebook, another subject that evolves in her pursuit of it. It’s thought provoking, funny, full of lots of literary and musical references, which I enjoyed listening to while reading and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. And a nod to Proust. The dude.

I was left with a scar. I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words. Since not all blows or falls leave marks, the words are there, ready to be put together in different ways, anywhere, anytime, in response to any fall, however serious or slight.

Random observations over time create patterns and themes, eliciting minor epiphanies.

Wild-Is-The-WindA celebration of the yin aspect of life, the jewel within. And that jewel of a song, sung by both David Bowie and Nina Simone, Wild is the Wind.

…the present is also, as its name suggests, a gift. It doesn’t suggest longing or loss. It’s just a present, a gift, a time with no strings attached which is totally ours, to use however we want, however we please. There are days when I find the future overwhelming, with all the bright lights and commotion.

I highly recommend it if you enjoy plotless narratives that make you think and see meaning in the ordinary. And relate to the little things.

Dwarf things. Small things. Little things in relation to the norm. Insignificant things. Things with different dimensions. Curiously, the stories I like the most are made up of trivialities. Details. Trifles. These days, people look to what’s big. The big picture, big sales figures, success. Bright lights, interviews, breaking news. Whatever’s famous. Importance judged by fame. Maybe small things are subversive. Living on a modest scale compared to the norm. Maybe the dwarf is the hero of our time.

Brenda Lozano Author LoopBrenda Lozano is a novelist, essayist and editor. She was born in Mexico in 1981.

Her novels include Todo nada (2009), Cuaderno ideal (2014) published in English as Loop and the storybook Cómo piensan las piedras (2017). Her most recent novel is Brujas (2020).

Brenda Lozano was recognized by Conaculta, Hay Festival and the British Council as one of the most important writers under 40 years of age in Mexico and named as one of the Bogotá 39, a selection of the best young writers in Latin America.  She also writes for the newspaper El País.

Further Information

On Charco Press’s Instagram IGTV page there is a video interview with Brenda Lozano for WIT Month where she speaks about the process of translation as a part of the art of writing, about her influences as she wrote Loop and about how she has taken the story of Penelope and Odysseus as inspiration.

Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously. That’s what universities are for, and theses, and academic studies. Personally, I like cafés, bars and living rooms. Not to mention comfortable cushions. So nice and cosy.

Love Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet tr. Rose Myriam-Réjouis, Val Vinokur

A Haitian Trilogy – Introduction by Edwidge Danticat

Love Anger Madness Marie Vieux ChauvetOriginally published in French as Amour, colère et folie, this trilogy of novellas was originally suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968. Seen as a scathing response to the struggles of race, class and sex that had occurred in Haiti, this major work became an underground classic, would send its author into exile and would finally be released in an authorised edition in France in 2005 (this English version in 2009).

Considered by Edwidge Danticat as the cornerstone of Haitian literature, she opens her introduction telling us that “Fewer than a handful of Haitian writers have, both while alive and dead, inspired as much adulation, analysis, and discussion as Marie Vieux-Chauvet.”

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a member of the “occupation generation”, that is, born a year after the United States invaded Haiti, an occupation that would last 19 years. She would use the turmoil of that rebellion as the back-story for Love, the first novella of the trilogy.

“We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence,” she writes of the country we Haitians like to remind the world was the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, home to the only slave revolt that succeeded in producing a nation. What we would rather not say, and what Claire Clamont and Marie Vieux-Chauvet are brave enough to say, is that this same country has continued to fail at reaching its full potential, in part because of foreign interference and domination, but also because of internal strife and power struggles.

In three distinct novellas it unflinchingly manages to condemn totalitarianism and tyranny, with little care of the consequences, an act of courageousness or recklessness, but one that would make a significant and permanent mark in the chronicles of Haitian literature.

Love

The narrator of Love, Claire Clamont, is the eldest of three daughters, of a landowning upper-class family. She is the son her father never had and he wishes her to runs things as he would have them done. However, he hasn’t reckoned on her stubbornness and refusal to affiliate with some of the old ways he indulges, having raised her to think of them as superstitious. As a result she is neither feared nor respected by the workers, whom he had sold parcels of land to fund his political campaigns, a futile effort that has left the family near penniless.

The three sisters of this aristocratic family live together, all coveting the same man, Felicia’s husband. Annette succeeds in seducing him, Claire silently, voyeuristically encouraging her.

Meanwhile, a man sent to reform Haiti is known to use violent, torturous means to get his message across, preying on the innocent.

The love this elder daughter practices is tinged with jealousy, revenge and resentment, laying blame at the feet of an ancestor with dark skin. She resents this ancestor who made her so, resents her father for trying to turn her into the son he never had, resents one sister for marrying a man she loves and the other for having seduced him.

Anger

Anger centres around a family and the day a group of black uniformed paramilitary seize their land, putting stakes in the ground, the grandfather and the young disabled grandson are indignant, the son and his wife wary and afraid, their older daughter Rose is practical, the young adult son Paul going crazy, desires revenge.

Men arrive and plant stakes in the ground of land belonging to a family, they wear black uniforms and invoke fear. Each of the family inside react. Then the concrete arrives. They’re seizing the land and building a wall.

The family is observed, tries to address the injustice, is compromised.

The mother got up slowly, put down her needlework, walked over to the old man and spoke into his ear.

“Look at him, Grandfather,” she whispered, “just look at him.”

The child was clenching his fists and grinding his teeth.

“Who will flog those who have taken our land?” he said without paying any attention to the mother. “Is there no longer a steward who can do it?”

“Alas, no!” the grandfather answered.

“Why not?”

“Because there are ups and downs in the life of a people. As the arrow rises, it gives birth to heroes; when it falls, only cowards come into the world. No steward would agree to stand up to those who have taken our land.”

He told himself that his crippled and sickly grandson was the faint beginning of the next era of heroes and that the arrow had begun its slow ascent only eight years ago. Hundreds more must have come into the world the same time he did, he thought, and with feet and legs as well as a brave soul. A day will come when they will grow up and the birds of prey will have to account for their deeds to every last one of them.

Madness

Madness is narrated by René, a lower class mulatto poet hiding inside his shack, paranoid about what’s going on outside his door and inside his mind, finding solace in a bottle, in rituals to do with voodoo beliefs that most of his life he has rejected and the poet friends he fearfully opens his door to, to offer them refuge. Unclear, what is real and what is the projection of a man’s fearful mind, we read on, aware that under oppression anything is possible.

A thought provoking read that invites the reader to understand more about the historical and present situation in Haiti.

Marie Vieux ChauvetMarie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright, the author of five novels including Dance on the Volcano, Fonds des Negres, Fille d’Haiti and Les Rapaces.

Her works focus on class, color, race, gender, family structure and the upheaval of Haitian political, economic and social society during the United States occupation of Haiti and the dictatorship of François Duvalier. She died in New York in 1973.

Further Reading

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Best Reads of 2020

In 2020 I read more books than usual, as a result of the diminished social and leisure life we’ve all had to rein in. That extra home time I gifted to my reading and writing activities and was aptly rewarded.

Books That Soothe the Soul

It was a slow start as the year began, still in the terrible lull that followed the death of my teenage daughter in August 2019. I couldn’t read and when I tried it wasn’t easy to find the right match. The few books that soothed me were more of a spiritual nature, Julie Ryan’s Angelic Attendants Felicity Warner’s Sacred Oils, and The Grief Recovery Handbook; though I wasn’t able to express here how they sustained me, they just did.

Confinement in France

Then in March we were ordered to stay home. In France, it is known as le confinement. For two months I wasn’t able to work and we were only allowed to leave home for an hour a day for exercise within a 1 kilometre radius of home and to carry a printed attestation each time we left home. Ironically, while this was the beginning of a difficult period for many, it was the beginning of a return to a new reality and routine for me. The daily walk, the immense gratitude, the arrival of spring, noticed and appreciated in a new way. I was finding a way back to balance, re-centering.

I wrote a series of blog posts entitled Reading Lists for Total Confinement, which included my:

Alberto Villoldo How Shamans Dream the World into BeingTop Five Spiritual Well Being Reads, Top Five Nature Inspired Reads, Top Five Uplifting Reads,

Top Five Translated FictionTop Five Memoirs and the Top Five books I was intending to read next.

It was a tipping point and re-entry back into reading, and one title that I slow-read and drip-fed myself, no more than a chapter a day, during those two months, that was like an uplifting, therapeutic intervention was Cuban-American Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

He reminds us that we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future. Never was there a better time to refresh this knowledge and to recall the benefit of expressing one’s creativity.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Travelling the World From Home

And so my reading mojo returned and from the comfort of home, I rested in the present, resisted the pull of other media and travelled the world through literature, reading a little over a book a week, by authors from 34 countries, a third of them in translation.

Continuing to favour the imagination in storytelling, 70% of the books I read were fiction, however I read more non-fiction this year than ever and some of my favourite reads came from this genre.

Here are my Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads, as well as my annual ‘One Outstanding Read of the Year’.

Outstanding Read of the Year

Best Non Fiction Read of 2020A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Ireland) – I read so many deserving, excellent works of fiction that were also outstanding, so I revisited this book to remind me why it deserves to be elevated above the rest.

It may be due to my own journey, perhaps there is something about this book that validates my desire to write something fragmented and unconventional, something that isn’t easily categorised.

This work of creative nonfiction is as personal as it is universal, it uses a poem and the author’s passion for it, to bring together various threads of her own life, both before having a family, while on the threshold of birth, being in proximity to death, experiencing love and daring to author a work that bursts beyond genre, challenges academia and waves the flag for women in all her multifaceted complexity.  Language, poetry, babies, dark nights of the soul, creativity, writing, Irish life, the burying and rise of women authors working in partnership.

Much of this book was written sitting inside her car, parked up after dropping her children at school. Forget excuses about finding time to write, or a room of one’s own, Ni Ghriofa deserves a prize for perseverance, achievement, breaking all convention and writing an utterly engaging 21st century kick-ass, feminist oeuvre. Just brilliant. Read it people!

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

Here, in no particular order is the best of the fiction I read in 2020, reading experiences that have stayed with me, that I continue to highly recommend to you all, just click on a title to read my original review:

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin (France) tr. Hildegarde Serle – this was the last book I read in 2020 and a fitting way to end the year, it is a beautiful translation of what was a bestseller in France in 2018, about a young woman who becomes a train level-crossing keeper, then cemetery-keeper. It a story of love, loss and redemption told through an extensive cast of characters, both living and not, demonstrating the interconnectivity of lives, viewed through a compassionate lens. Evocative, lyrical, character lead and quintessentially French.

The Book of Harlan, Bernice McFadden (US) – this work of historical fiction, in part inspired by the author’s own family was hugely memorable and one of the first in 2020 that really stood out for me. It was also the book that lead me into a bit of Harlem Renaissance period of reading which uncovered some excellent older reads that I adored. It follows the life of Harlan from his early years with his grandparents to Harlem and the music scene, to Paris and Germany, and while reading I was accompanied by the music of that era which McFadden incorporates brilliantly into the narrative and had me pausing, listening, watching and learning all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen (US) (semi-autobiographical) – while the reading world in 2020 was devouring Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a contemporary exploration of the American history of passing, I opted to read Nella Larsen’s classic novellas Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). I enjoyed Passing, however the semi-autobiographical Quicksand was equally brilliant. It follows the life of a young woman, a third culture kid of mixed race parentage with a white mother from Denmark and a black father from the Danish West Indies (as were Nella’s parents), foreigners, immigrants, a child growing up with little connection to either culture, who has trouble settling in to the society she is born into. Brilliantly written and observed, I highly recommend it.

Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox (French) – I love reading Condé and managed another two this year including I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem however Crossing the Mangrove was a stand out and had me shaking my head in admiration of her talent. Here she returns to a Caribbean setting, where the death and subsequent funeral of an outsider brings together a number of characters, each of whom narrate a chapter, revealing the multilayered diversity of island society. Though the man’s death is a mystery, it is is more of a ‘noir‘ novel, no tidy resolution, rather an insightful, penetrative look at the folly of life. Brilliant, one I want to reread.

Circe, Madeline Miller (US) – I’d wanted to read this for a while and finally did so earlier in the year and loved it. With Circe, Miller brings a refreshing, feminist perspective to an ancient Greek myth, that reconsiders the motivations of the jealous nymph, allowing her to evolve and grow into the fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that she becomes while living in exile. Rather than the evil sorceress men have historically depicted her as, here we meet a more nuanced, balanced and complex character. Brilliant.

The Adventures of China Iron, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina), tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre (Spanish) – short listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 this was one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a while, a contemporary retelling of a well-known Argentinian gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández; that title a lament for a disappearing way of life, whereas this is an elegy to what could have been, told from the perspective of his little mentioned wife, a tale of adventure, emancipation, sexual freedom and liberation. It didn’t win, but it remains a firm favourite of the year for me.

A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy), tr. Ann Goldstein – this novella was an unexpected surprise, I read four books translated from Italian this year, Elena Ferrante’s latest The Lying Life of Adults and her debut Troubling Love, both of which were excellent, but it was this novella that has stayed in my mind. A thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she was born to without being told why. Determined to unravel the cause of abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and now by her adoptive family, the book explores the changes that happen as she detaches from one and becomes entwined in the other. It’s brilliantly depicted, thought provoking and insightful.

Auē, Becky Manawatu (NZ) – last year I read the winner of the NZ Book Award This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman and this year when Auē took the prize, I bought a copy immediately. Very different books, both explore a darker aspect of New Zealand life. Aue has you on the edge of the seat, following the lives of an eight year old boy, his older brother and a couple they are connected to. The characters are unforgettable, portrayed with empathy without indulging sentimentality. The proximity of vulnerability to brutality is intense and unforgettable. You won’t read anything else like this in 2020. Extraordinary literary fiction from elsewhere. Go on. Read it.

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao (Taiwan) tr. Mike Fu (Chinese) – incredible that it has taken 40 years for this title to come to our attention and be translated. This was definitely the funniest, sometimes scariest and surprising read of the year. Sanmao wasn’t exactly a hippy, she was one of a kind, a woman way ahead of her time and outside of her culture, travelling with her Spanish boyfriend in the 70’s with the intention to live in the Spanish Sahara like a local, thanks to a deep passion for the landscape and curiosity for its people. The situations she finds herself in, the people she meets and the tender love affair with the man who indulges her whims, was a close runner up for outstanding read of the year.

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty, Carlo & Renzo Piano (Italy), tr. Will Schutt – another from Italy, this is a father and son adventure, a journalist and an architect who take an eight month trip by boat around the world, visiting the various sites of Renzo Piano’s architectural constructions. I requested it on a whim and found it both educational, entertaining, philosophical and surprisingly riveting. This now 80 year old father is an inspiration and his son an engaging, provocative narrator. It left me wishing that more familial partnerships could come together to capture these kind of conversations, that have such universal appeal.

Handiwork, Sara Baume (Ireland) – an author whose name I was familiar with, I read Handiwork after finding it was published by Tramp Press, who published A Ghost in the Throat. I couldn’t believe my luck to have come across another title that blurs the boundaries of genre. Handiwork is an artwork, a lyrical account of a year spent sculpting and painting small birds for an installation. Her morning she spends writing, her afternoons making stuff with her hands, just her Dad and Grandad did before her. An eclectic collage of thoughts, observations, memories and quotes from various masters, it was a total pleasure to read.

A Spell in the Wild, A Year & Six Centuries of Magic, Alice Tarbuck (Scotland) – after reading two novels about Tituba, the black slave woman accused of witchcraft, I decided to read a book with a contemporary view of witchcraft, now that we are safely beyond the era when admitting to being partial to the practice of ritual outside of acceptable religion could get you hanged. And I stumbled across the incredibly knowledgeable author Dr Alice Tarbuck, who puts the formality of her PhD aside to share her monthly rituals, spells and historical anecdotes from a vast canon of literature that portrayed women as something wicked and powerful that needed to be suppressed if not put down. Her six centuries of magic is quite the opposite, unputdownable.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Irene Wilkerson (US) – the product of years of research, and an intimate relationship with three people, from three different states and decades through whom Wilkerson recounts history, this is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow Southern states of America, beginning just after WW1 in 1915, continuing until the 1970’s. It’s a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old and a fascinating insight into black American history told in a compelling way.

* * * * * * *

And there it is, a summary of the most memorable books I read in 2020, thank you for your patience if you managed to read this far! Do you have a few absolute favourite reads of the year to share? Did you read any of those I mention here? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

“If life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage.”

cemetery keeper changer l'eau des fleursWhat a refreshing read to end 2020 with, a novel of interwoven characters and connections, threaded throughout the life of Violette Touissant, given up at birth.

When I was born I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival.
Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname.

We first meet Violetteas an adult. Having been a level-crossing keeper she is now a cemetery keeper. She introduces her neighbours and their characteristics in common, they are an intriguing lot, who we are going to get to know better.

Those neighbours she lives among are the dead, while she lives in the heaven of the living, at the mid-range of life having been through plenty of pain and suffering to get there. Now rewarded, she has found her place, her people and those who deserve to be part of it, have found her too.

My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them.

Level Crossing Keeper

The 94 short chapters all begin with a thought provoking quote, the narrative seesaws back and forth to moments in that life, sometimes revisiting the same moments, but seeing them from the point of view of Violette, her husband Philippe and the many other pairs of characters we encounter, through their connection to those dead neighbours of hers.

Since taking on the job of cemetery keeper, after meeting one of the most life-changing characters, Sasha, she has been recording details of the events that take place in the cemetery, making diary-like entries, references that she is able to refer back to when people stop by to have a cup of tea or something stronger, looking for the resting place of someone important to them, not always family, but people with connections that weren’t always able to be fully expressed in life.

Death never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, not public holidays, nor dentist appointments…It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice when it bites us. Or worse, bites a loved one.

The narrative returns to her early adult life, at 18, already married, she discovers the 821 page novel L’Oeuvre de Dieu, la part du Diable a French translation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, a book known to open minds and hearts, eliciting compassion for a set of circumstances no one really thinks about, making the reader look at the world in a slightly different way.

Which is perhaps what Fresh Water For Flowers does, taking characters in unconventional circumstances and sharing their stories, watching how those stories shock, enlighten, end and change lives.

Violette too will have to deal with death. A death that develops into the more significant mystery at the core of the novel. And with it, innumerable twists and turns, suspicions and revelations.

Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves.

Every summer she stays in the chalet of her friend Célia, in the calanque of Sormiou, Marseille. A place of refuge and rejevenation, that Perrin too brings alive, eliciting the recovery and rehabilitation this nature-protected part of the Mediterranean offers humanity.

It’s a gentle novel because even though there are moments of tragedy, they are seen through the eyes of the most empathetic character, so even the most villainous, unlikable characters are given a generous, understanding hearing.

The details of the life of a keeper, whether it’s the level crossing or the cemetery are so realistic, evocative and visual, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this book may be turned into a series; it’s too long for a movie and with so many interconnecting lives, it  feels like it could have continued on, just as life and death does, always someone arriving, someone departing, and someone there to soothe the way through those transitions.

It’s not a book I have heard anything about until now, but it’s going on my list of favourites for 2020 and is one I highly recommend.

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy for review.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020, shortlist and the winner

This is a relatively new prize in the UK, established and run by the University of Warwick and now in it’s 3rd year.  Its aim is to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices:

Women in Translation Warwick Prize ShortlistSeven titles were shortlisted for the annual Women in Translation award from 132 eligible entries, 16 titles made the initial longlist:

The 7 shortlisted titles included 3 novels (one an epistolary novel), 2 collections of short stories, 1 collection of letters, and 1 young adult novella.

Six languages were represented: Arabic (Sudan), Chinese (China & Malaysia), German (Georgia/Germany), Hungarian (Hungary), Italian (Italian) & Swedish (Finland).

The shortlist was dominated by independent publishers, including Comma Press and 5 publishers who appeared on the shortlist for the first time: Daunt Books, Granta, HopeRoad, Scribe UK and Sort of Books.

Seven make the Shortlist

The full list of shortlisted titles, in alphabetical order, is as follows:

Abigail Magda Szabo HungaryAbigail by Magda Szabó (Hungary), translated by Len Rix (MacLehose Press, 2020)

– the story of a headstrong teenager growing up during World War II. Gina is the only child of a general, a widower who has long been happy to spoil his bright and willful daughter. Gina is devastated when the general tells her he must leave and she will attend a boarding school in the country and more so when she discovers how grim it is. She fights with her students, rebels against teachers, is ostracized and runs away. Caught and returned, she is entrusted to the legendary Abigail.

 

Natalia Ginzburg Happiness As Such Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Minna Zallmann Proctor (Daunt Books Publishing, 2019)

– The story of the Prodigal Son turned on its head, Happiness, As Such is a short, absurdly funny novel-in-letters about complicated families and missed connections.
Michele is the beloved only son of a large, dysfunctional family in 1970s Italy. Headstrong and independent, he has disappeared to London without explanation. Back in Italy, his father lies dying. Michele’s departure sets forth a series of events that will bring together everyone in his life.

 

Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (Malaysia) translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce (Granta Publications, 2019)

– A portrait of Malaysian society in nine stories, Lake Like a Mirror explores the lives of women buffeted by powers beyond their control. Squeezing themselves between the gaps of rabid urbanisation, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government, these women find their lives twisted in disturbing ways.

In precise and disquieting prose, Ho Sok Fong draws her readers into a richly atmospheric world of naked sleepwalkers in a Muslim women’s home, mysterious wooden boxes, gossip in unlicensed hairdressers, hotels with amnesiac guests, and poetry classes with accidentally charged politics – a world that is both bizarre and utterly true.

 

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Finland) edited by Boel Westin & Helen Svensson, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Sort of Books, 2019)

– Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote, a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.

Penned with grace and humour, this collection offers an almost seamless commentary on her life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning 50 years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, they cover the bleakness of war, hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.

Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.

 

Translated Fiction The Eight LifeThe Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Georgia/Germany), translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe UK, 2019)

–  the story of seven women living through one of the greatest drama’s of the twentieth century.

1900, Georgia: in the deep south of the Russian Empire, Stasia, the daughter of a famous chocolatier, dreams of ballet in Paris, but marries a soldier, and is caught up in the October Revolution. Escaping with her children, she finds shelter with her unworldly sister Christine, whose beauty, fatally, has caught the eye of Stalin’s henchman. Disastrous consequences ensue for the whole family.

2006, Germany: after the fall of the Iron Curtain Georgia is shaken by a civil war. Niza, Stasia’s great granddaughter has broken from her family and moved to Berlin. But when her 12-year-old niece Brilka runs away, Niza must track her down and tell her the truth about their family — and about the secret recipe for hot chocolate, which has given both salvation and misfortune over six generations.

Epic and absorbing, The Eighth Life is a novel of seven exceptional lives lived under the heat and light of empire, revolution, war, repression, and liberation.

 

Rania Mamoun Thirteen Months of Sunrise Translated FictionThirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (Sudan), translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

– A young woman sits by her father’s deathbed, lamenting her failure to keep a promise to him…

A struggling writer walks every inch of the city in search of inspiration, only to find it is much closer than she imagined…

A girl collapses from hunger at the side of the road and is rescued by the most unlikely of saviours…

In this powerful, debut collection of stories, Rania Mamoun blends the real and imagined to create a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan. From painful encounters with loved ones to unexpected new friendships, Mamoun illuminates the breadth of human experience and explores, with humour and compassion, the alienation, isolation and estrangement that is urban life.

 

White Horse Yan Ge China Warwick Prize TranslationWhite Horse by Yan Ge (China), translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman (HopeRoad, 2019)

– This compact novella contains a gripping psychological tale, enlivened by wickedly sharp insights into contemporary small-town life in China.

Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father and an uncle, aunt, and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence, but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie.

Three Commended By the Judges

Although not on the shortlist, 3 titles from the longlist were singled out for commendation by the judges:

Isabella Isabella Morra Poetry ItalyIsabella (Smokestack Books, 2019), a collection of fiercely feminist poems by the Italian Renaissance writer Isabella Morra translated by Caroline Maldonado

– Isabella Morra (c1520-1545/6) was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in Southern Italy. Forced to live in strict isolation in the family castle in Valsinni on a steep cliff above the Ionian Sea, she devoted herself to writing a series of extraordinary poems, ‘amaro, aspro e dolente’ (‘bitter, harsh and sorrowful’), about her longing for escape. When she was twenty-six she was brutally murdered by three of her brothers in an honour killing. She was buried in an unmarked grave, and her poetry was forgotten for several hundred years.

The Way Through the Woods On Mushrooms and Mourningthe extraordinary memoir about mushrooms and grief, The Way Through the Woods (Scribe UK, 2019) by Malaysian-born Long Litt Woon, translated from Norwegian by Barbara Haveland

– A grieving widow feeling disconnected from life discovers an unexpected passion, hunting for mushrooms, in a story of healing and purpose.
Long Litt Woon moved to Norway from Malaysia as a nineteen-year-old exchange student. Soon after her arrival, she met Eiolf who became the love of her life. After thirty-two years together, Eiolf’s sudden death left Woon struggling to imagine a life without the man who had been her soulmate and best friend. Adrift in grief, Woon signed up for a beginner’s course on mushrooming. She found, to her surprise, that the hunt for mushrooms and mushroom knowledge rekindled her appetite for life, awakened her dulled senses providing a source of joy and meaning.

Marion Brunet Summer of Reckoningand the pacey young adult thriller set in a small French town rife with racism and rage Summer of Reckoning (Bitter Lemon Press, 2020) by Marion Brunet, translated from French by Katherine Gregor.

– in the suffocating atmosphere of a social housing estate in the south of France, sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet.

A dark and upsetting account of an ailing society, filled with silent and murderous rage

And the winner is…

Translated Fiction The Eight Life

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

‘Elegant … It is a triumph of both authorship and painstaking translation … The Eighth Life is an unforgettable love letter to Georgia and the Caucasus, to lives led and to come, and to writing itself.’

CATHERINE TAYLOR, THE ECONOMIST

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein

Another excellent example of Elena Ferrante’s ability to zoom in close, with intensity into the subconscious of her protagonist, this time through the lens of a girl entering adolescence.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinFrom the opening pages, as Giovanna overhears a random comment from her father, it expands in her mind and overtakes her physically and mentally like a disease, affecting her mind, causing her to act in certain ways.

To the reader it may seem irrational, but to the hormone affected adolescent everything is magnified and causes her to imagine, lash out, withdraw, have moments of tenderness followed by hate and indifference.

She is uncomfortable in her skin and mind, lurching between strategies of action and non-action, always confrontational.

Though warned against her and until now they’ve never met, Giovanna cultivates a relationship with her estranged Aunt Vittoria, seeing her as a convenient tool of provocation and a source of not always reliable information.

She spewed bitterness, and yet those words now brought me relief, I repeated them in my mind. They affirmed the existence of a strong and positive bond, they demanded it. My aunt hadn’t said: you have my face or at least you look something like me; my aunt had said: you don’t belong only to your mother and father, you’re mine, too, you belong to the whole family that he came from, and anyone who belongs to us is never alone, is charged with energy.

It is a roller coaster of emotions and a river of consciousness as we ride along, wondering who is going to survive these years unscathed.

The Class Divide

There is the intensity we’ve come to expect of Ferrante, the twisted emotions and imaginings of her protagonist leading the story, reading the surface of behaviours of adults around her, creating confusion, with that precise, recognisable linguistic clarity. Her father and Aunt represent a class divide that Giovanni witnesses, growing up on one side her father has escaped to, and now intrigued by the other that her Aunt inhabits.

Their mutual hatred remained intact, and I soon gave up any attempt at mediation. I began instead to say to myself explicitly that that hatred was an advantage for me: if my father and his sister made peace, my encounters with Vittoria wouldn’t be exclusive, I might be downgraded to niece, and certainly I would lose the role of friend, confidante, accomplice. Sometimes I felt that if they stopped hating each other I would do something to make them start again.

I can’t really talk about the novel in the singular as I see her individual novels now as a tapestry of different women characters from Naples, in various stages of their life – the two friends in My Brilliant Friend, the daughter in Troubling Love and the betrayed wife of The Days of Abandonment.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante

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Inside the overthinking mind of an adolescent and the pushing boundary-like behaviours, exposing that lying life, provoking reactions, seeing the damage of truth-telling and then the transition, an increasing self-awareness, noticing a reduced need to react to annoyances, about one’s parents, one’s friends, teachers, family. A letting go. A transition. Decisions. To care or not to care.

I behaved like that certainly to feel free from all the old bonds, to make it clear that I didn’t care anymore about the judgment of relatives and friends, their values, their wanting me to be consistent with what they imagined themselves to be.

Ferrante provides the reader no easy conclusions, makes no judgments, but leads you down paths that will confront you with your own, as you carry on a conversation inside your own mind, wondering and trying to guess what her character might do next.

As the novel nears the end, it reads almost like a thriller, as we can see she is moving towards adulthood, her behaviours are less volatile, she feels less of a need to respond so violently, and yet, there is the danger that now she is becoming one of them – an adult – those who hide their behaviours behind lies.

Raw, intense, a delightful, refreshing, “stand up to them” protagonist.

My Reviews of Ferrante Books

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Troubling Love (novel)

The Days of Abandonment (novel)

The Neapolitan Quartet: (tetralogy – 4 novels)

My Brilliant Friend

The Story of a New Name

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The Story of the Lost Child

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey (nonfiction)

Further Reading

Review, Guardian:  a rebel rich girl comes of age

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

 

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

As I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults published in September 2020 and being a fan of many of her books to date, including My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and Frantumaglia, I was interested to learn thanks to the publisher Europa Editions that:

Elena Ferrante has compiled a list of novels close to her heart, all by women authors, and exclusively for Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon for socially conscious shoppers wanting to support high street bookshops when they shop online.

Given the type of characters and narratives Elena Ferrante is known for, her stories usually set in or have a connection with the working class neighbourhood of Naples and concern female protagonists coming to terms with their situation, whether they are girls, young mothers, grieving daughters or an adolescent trying to make sense of the adult world, I thought it would be interesting to know which authors she gravitates towards, who she has been influenced by and being Italian, she is likely to have read books that might be outside the common anglo reading mainstream.

I’m sharing the list here as an easy reference for me to look at and will link any of the titles I have already read to my reviews. I have read 13 of the titles, though only reviewed six of them.

Elena FerranteI’ve also added the countries the author is associated with, either by birth and/or nationality, as I find that helpful, it being one of the criteria by which I decide whether to read a book or not – to avoid always reading works from the same cultural influence.

The list is quite Euro-American influenced, with only one African representation (or two if you count Doris Lessing), so while not quite as diverse as what I like to read, it’s an interesting exploration of the female pysche through female literature of the ages from those cultures represented.

I did also read that the list was limited by what is available in English and by what is available from the Bookshop, so there are titles that haven’t been shared because either they haven’t been translated into English or are not available. I wish they had been included because that might have sparked an even more interesting debate about the lack of availability of works in other languages and to hear the chorus of readers who might have helped persuade publishers to do something about that.

Juliana at The Blank Garden has more to say about that in her critique of the list (see the link to her blog post below), she is very widely read across languages, a wonderful reviewer and has read 28 of the titles. I’ll be referring to her favourites of Elena’s favourites as a further guide!

Elena Ferrante’s top 40 books by female authors

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran/Australia) translated by Anonymous
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria) translated by Philip Boehm (German)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (US)
Outline by Rachel Cusk (UK)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (US)
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iran/France) translated by Tina Kover
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (France) translated by Barbara Bray
The Years by Annie Ernaux (France) translated by Alison Strayer
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Jenny McPhee
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (US)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Canada)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/UK)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (Ukraine/Brazil) translated by Idra Novey
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Beloved by Toni Morrison (US)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Canada)
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (UK)
Accabadora by Michela Murgia (Italy) translated by Silvester Mazzarella
Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine/France) translated by Sandra Smith
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (US)
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (Ireland)
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (US)
Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee
Gilead by Marylynne Robinson (US)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (US)
The Door by Magda Szabò (Hungary) translated by Len Rix
Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Poland/Germany) translated by Jan van Heurck
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium/US) translated by Grace Frick

Further Reading

Critic of the List: Elena Ferrante’s Shopping Advice | Reading Project

Article, Guardian: ‘This is revolutionary’: new online bookshop unites indies to rival Amazon

Article, Guardian: List by pseudonymous author of Neapolitan novels includes Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and several Italian classics