Womxn in Translation (Part Three)

Three more superb #WITMonth books.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador)

A novel in two parts, Breasts and Eggs is narrated by Natsuko, a 31-year-old bookshop worker. The first section is set in 2008 when Natsuko’s sister Makiko and her teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko’s on the verge of 40 and contemplating breast implants. 13-year-old Midoriko hasn’t spoken to her mother for more than six months, writing notes on a pad instead. She keeps a journal which we’re privy to from the early stages of the book which reveals that Midoriko is concerned about puberty and the expectations placed on women. She’s also angry at her mother for wanting the implants. Natsuko is concerned about her sister, who ‘literally looked old’. The two women grew up in poverty and now Makiko works as a hostess in a bar. The strain of work and her daughter not speaking to her is clearly taking its toll on Makiko. Inevitably the tension builds and there’s a superb set piece towards the end of the section involving actual eggs.

In the second half of the novel, Natsuko is thirty-eight. Since the end of part one, she’s become a successful writer with a best-selling short story collection. Now she’s working on a novel and struggling to believe that she’s gone from poverty to full-time writer. She’s also wondering whether she wants to spend the rest of her life alone. This is partly a question of relationships but largely of whether or not she wants a child. Natsuko’s almost certain she’s asexual (although she never uses the term) and this further complicates the issue. In an attempt to find an answer, she begins to research fertility treatment and makes some unexpected discoveries.

Breasts and Eggs was a best-seller in Japan and has been described as ‘a literary grenade’, partly, I’m sure, because Kawakami so brilliantly sends up the middle-class male-dominated literary scene. There’s a brilliant set piece at a literary event which introduces another female writer, Rika Yusa, who has no time for the big male writers and no qualms about telling them. But what sets the book apart is its focus on three working-class women and their lives. Kawakami writes about money and the impact having so little has on someone’s life; she considers the long-lasting effects of growing up poor; she examines what it is to be a woman from a range of perspectives creating space for single mothers, for those who chose to remain child-free, and for a woman who’s asexual, therefore making room for so many different varieties of womanhood. Breasts and Eggs is a breath of fresh air. I loved it. 

King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Feminism […] is not about pitting the miserable gains by women against the miserable gains by men, it’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.

Despentes’ feminist manifesto/essay collection King Kong Theory comes for the patriarchy from the margins: 

I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.

From this perspective, Despentes shows how women have been made to feel scared of their own independence and how traditional masculinity is keeping men caged. She writes about her own rape to challenge the idea that that women have to be victims; she details her experiences as a prostitute (Despentes’ vocabulary choice) to lay down parallels with heterosexual marriage; she debates the reasons the establishment give for their attitudes towards porn, tying it to capitalism and the maintenance of the status quo, and she discusses the attitudes of male critics towards the film based on her debut novel Baise Moi (Rape Me), and how the policing of women’s identities is degrading. The latter piece ends with a paragraph of which the opening sentence is Thank fuck for Courtney Love, to which I (and my 17-year-old self) can only respond, hell, yes. 

Originally published in 2006, King Kong Theory has been reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions in a new translation by Frank Wynne, translator of Despentes’ brilliant Vernon Subutex trilogy. It’s spikier and swearier than the original English language translation and better for it. There’s a ferocity to this version that fits Despentes’ anger at society’s gender expectations.

Rather than writing a review of this book, my initial plan was to type out all the bits I’d underlined, but by the time I’d finished reading it, I’d underlined most of the book. I think that tells you all you need to know.

Many People Die Like You – Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories)

Wolff’s short stories, like her novels, are populated with off-beat characters who either find themselves in strange situations or are the victim of Wolff sending them up. The opening tale, ‘No Man’s Land’ starts with the narrator complaining about a badly written report. Office manager? No. A private detective hired to follow the narrator’s husband. The detective’s dangling modifiers drop him in a predicament neither he nor the reader would have imagined. 

In the title story, Vicente Jiménez, a middle-aged university lecturer (oh, yes), laments the end of an affair with one of his female students (oh, yes). His boss, Jerónimo Inclán, tells him

“Many people die like you,” […]. “Death by stifling is in fact the most common death of all. Statistics will tell you asphyxiation is the most common cause of death.”

He expands this into a metaphor about feeling that you’re not living life to the full before eventually succumbing to melancholy and dying. Vincete’s life changes though when Inclán introduces him to Beatriz de la Fuente; perhaps he’ll escape death after all. I should’ve hated everything about this story, but Wolff has her tongue firmly in her cheek and it’s hilarious. 

Elsewhere, a girl tells her high school guidance counsellor that she could imagine being a sex worker, leading to unexpected but inevitable consequences; an older woman asks a younger man for piano lessons which become regular appointments for sex instead; a man has a terrible time on holiday with his wife because of the patriarchy and the establishment and absolutely nothing to do with his affair (oh, no); a woman’s ex-lover turns up at her marital home with a strange request, and, on a coach trip, a woman sees a terrible omen.

In the longest and most complex piece, ‘Misery Porn’, a young man buys a second-hand television which starts to pick up a channel where a woman sits in a chair crying. The woman turns out to be his neighbour and he gets drawn into both a relationship with her and the content she produces. Wolff uses it to comment on society’s expectations of women who’ve suffered and the double-bind it places them in. As in many of the stories, Wolff’s interested in the conventions of society and what happens if you break them. These tales are odd, inventive and often laugh out loud funny.

Review copies provided by the publishers as stated.

In the Media, April 2017, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Photograph by Pari Dukovic

The Handmaid’s Tale is having a moment due to the television serial airing this coming week and the current political situation in America (and beyond).

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As one series begins, another ended this week:

And in women win prizes, ‘Heather Rose wins the Stella Prize for a novel that wouldn’t ‘let her go’‘ as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Photograph by Adrienne Mathiowetz

Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: 1st March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’ve spent a fair proportion of this week agog at some of the comment pieces, particularly in regard to the three girls from Bethnal Green who appear to be en route to Syria. Emma Barnett in the Telegraph wrote, ‘Stop pitying British schoolgirls joining Islamic State – they’re not victims‘; Grace Dent in the Independent said, ‘If teenage girls want to join Isis in the face of all its atrocities, then they should leave and never return‘; Mary Dejevsky wrote, ‘If Britons want to join Isis, let them go‘ in The Guardian and Allison Pearson said, ‘Let’s stop making excuses for these ‘jihadi brides‘ in the Telegraph. Judith Wanga responded on Media Diversified with, ‘The Denial of Childhood to Children of Colour‘, as did Chimene Suleyman with, ‘It’s Time To Talk About Why Our Young People Turn Against Their Country‘ and Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian with, ‘The Syria-bound schoolgirls aren’t jihadi devil-women, they’re vulnerable children‘. Emma Barnett responded with ‘Racists are alive and well in Britain – but I’m not one of them‘ in the Telegraph. Chimene Suleyman also wrote, ‘‘Defining’ Terror, and Why ISIS Suits the West‘ on Media Diversified, prior to these most recent articles.

The Oscar ceremony was another place for some jaw-dropping comments. Megan Kearns wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Undermined Her Own “Most Feminist Moment” of the Oscars‘ in Bitch Magazine; Betsy Woodruff commented, ‘The Gender Wage Gap Is Especially Terrible in Hollywood‘ on Slate; Maitri Mehta wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Defends Her Oscars Backstage Comments On Twitter, But Still Misses The Point‘ on Bustle; Jenny Kutner also wrote about Arquette’s tweets on Salon, ‘Patricia Arquette doubles down on equal pay: “Why aren’t you an advocate for equality for all women?”‘; Amanda Marcotte wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women‘ on Slate; Katie McDonough wrote, ‘“Fight for us now”: What Patricia Arquette got right (and wrong) about equal pay‘ on Salon. Brittney Cooper wrote, ‘Black America’s hidden tax: Why this feminist of color is going on strike‘ in Salon.

Remarks made by one television reporter about Zendaya Coleman’s locs prompted pieces by Loretta de Feo, ‘Why do we feel the need to taunt and judge black hair, rather than embrace it?‘ in Stylist; Jodie Layne, ‘Why Zendaya’s Response To Giuliana Rancic’s Awful ‘Fashion Police’ Comments Is Important‘ on Bustle, and Grisel E.Acosta wrote, ‘“Racism begins in our imagination:” How the overwhelming whiteness of “Boyhood” feeds dangerous Hollywood myths‘ on Salon.

The Brits were written about by Tracey Thorn in the New Statesman, ‘The Brits are so polite these days. One reason? There’s no bands left‘; Bidisha wrote, ‘Madonna is superhuman. She has to be to survive the ugly abuse‘ in The Guardian; while Salena Godden covered both the Oscars and the Brits in ‘Julianne Moore is 54. Madonna is 56.‘ on Waiting for Godden

Writing awards wise, the Sunday Times Short Story Award shortlist was announced and is dominated by women. As is the Walter Scott Prize longlist, released to the public for the first time.

There’s an entire series of articles currently being published in the Irish Times on Irish Women Writers. The link will take you to the round-up so far. While academic Diane Watt has just completed 28 days of LGBT book recommendations. You can read this week’s in a Storify here; links at the bottom of the page will take you to previous weeks.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Kim Gordon. She’s this week’s New York Times ‘By the Book‘; there’s an excerpt from Girl in a Band in The Cut; you can listen to Gordon herself read an extract on Louder than War; there are five standout moments from her memoir on Slate, and in The New Yorker, Michelle Orange writes about ‘Kim Gordon, Kurt Cobain, and the Mythology of Punk‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists: