Womxn in Translation (Part Two)

Four more #WITMonth offerings. All very different; all very good. (Part One is here.)

Tender Is the Flesh – Agustina Bazterrica, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses (Pushkin Press)

In a future world that feels slightly too close to our own reality, people have stopped eating animal meat following the announcement of a virus, carried by animals, that’s fatal to humans. The lack of protein means some people take matters into their own hands: ‘In some countries immigrants began to disappear en masse. Immigrants, the marginalized, the poor. They were persecuted and eventually slaughtered’. In an attempt to prevent this, humans are legally bred for meat. 

Marcos Tejo runs a processing plant. He’s grieving the death of his baby son and his wife is living at her mother’s, unwilling to speak to him. Then an old friend gifts him a pure gene, almond-fed female and Marcos has to decide what to do with her. 

Tender Is the Flesh isn’t for the faint-hearted. In one section, we’re given a tour of the processing plant as ‘heads’ (it’s illegal to refer to them as humans) are slaughtered. There’s a fairly graphic rape scene and multiple images of humans in captivity. But how far from today’s world is this really? Bazterrica draws clear lines to our treatment of immigrants, the poor and women and although Marcos is conflicted, he is also utterly complicit. Ultimately, Bazterrica suggests we’re too selfish to save humanity; when it comes to it, we’ll make sure our own needs are met first.

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

I am not constructing a fictional character but deconstructing the girl I was.

At a summer camp in 1958, 17-year-old Annie Duchesne was sexually assaulted by one of the camp’s head instructor. Sixty years later, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) tries to analyse what happened to her and the impact that summer had on her life. Ernaux sees the girl she was as ‘the missing piece’; she’s tried to write about her and that summer many times but has never managed it. Now, she separates herself from this girl, referring to her as ‘she’ and her present self as ‘I’ in order to unearth who she really is. 

What’s most interesting about the project is Ernaux’s thoughts on how to approach it and what can really be learned from an event so long ago that new memories of it are unlikely to be found. At one point, she thinks about the man and the imbalance of the impact he’s had on her compared to the one she had on him. ‘I do not envy him: I am the one who is writing.’ And I’m grateful she is. Ernaux’s work is always intelligent and thoughtful and A Girl’s Story is no exception. 

Where the Wild Ladies Are – Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (Tilted Axis)

A collection of ghost stories drawn from traditional Japanese tales to which Matsuda applies a feminist twist. There are saleswomen who subtly sort out a lazy husband; a newly-single woman who, with the help of her aunt, question why she spends so much time on grooming procedures; a sex worker whose child is quietly watched over when she has to leave her alone in order to work; a tree which might have special properties, and a woman who works with her pet to protect women who are being harassed and abused. There is also a series of stories set in and around a company run by Mr Tei, a recruiter of both human and supernatural beings. 

Matsuda plays with form and voice across the collection. There’s an interesting piece – ‘Having a Blast’ – which moves from the perspective of a dead wife to her widow and then to his new wife, which shifts the reader’s understanding of the characters as it progresses. ‘The Jealous Type’ is told in second person which begins quite confrontationally but takes an interesting turn when the speaker is revealed. 

Some of the stories come with a primer for the original tale. These were interesting in terms of seeing how Matsuda had changed or developed them, but I didn’t feel that not knowing the original stories diminished my enjoyment of the new versions. This collection is a joy. 

Territory of Light – Yūko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin Modern Classics)

Originally written and published in 12 parts in 1978-79, Territory of Light follows a year in the life of a young woman who has left her husband and is living alone with their two-year-old daughter. As the year proceeds, the woman has to learn how to adjust to this new life – how to cope when she needs to go to work but her daughter’s sick; how to manage the presence of her ex who wants to see his child but can’t pay maintenance; how to build something that is hers while taking into account the needs of her child. 

On the surface, this book appears to be quite gentle; the sort of narrative which is sometimes described as one in which ‘nothing happens’. But there is an underlying darkness to the stories: a fire that breaks out at an apartment; the sound of water that can’t be located; objects thrown from a window; the daughter acting out, and the ex-husband being verbally abusive. These are stories with a depth that belies the smoothness of the writing; tales that linger and expand after you’ve finished reading them. 

Review copies of A Girl’s Story and Territory of Light provided by the publisher as listed. All others are my own copies.

Reading Diary #3: Womxn in Translation (Part One)

It’s August which means it’s Women in Translation month. As ever, you can find out more on founder Meytal Radzinski’s blog.

In a bid to be more organised than recent years, I started compiling my #WITMonth reads a few weeks ago, so there will be recommendations every week this month. The first batch are below, all of which are superb.

If you’re a regular visitor to the blog, you might also notice that I’ve added photographs of the writers alongside their book jackets. It’s a deliberate move to remind me to read more books by Black women, indigenous women and women of colour and to help those of you trying to further diversify your reading.

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

In August 1949, a soldier is bitten by an insect. Untreated, the wound it gives him begins to fester. Into the camp in which he is stationed is brought a Palestinian girl, captured by the Israeli troop he commands. Aware the other soldiers intend to rape her, he brings her into his own lodging, but turns from protector to perpetrator. Years later, a Palestinian woman comes across a small piece of information about this act and obsesses about discovering more detail. She transgresses borders – big and small, physical and psychological – in order to do so, discovering how much of the past and the present have been erased. The book is slight in terms of pages, but the fear, anxiety and foreboding atmosphere linger long after the final page. 

Little Eyes – Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The world has adopted a new gadget; kentukis come in different animal guises – panda, rabbit, mole, crow, dragon, owl – and customers can choose to either purchase an animal and be watched or purchase a serial number and become a voyeur. The watcher and the watched can’t communicate directly. Those being viewed don’t know who’s watching them and the voyeurs can only see what’s shown to them. Through the kentukis, Schweblin explores the effects of surveillance culture, focusing on the way we choose to watch and be watched by documenting our lives on social media platforms. While all of the stories show the invasive nature of current technology, Schweblin avoids blanket condemnation, choosing to consider how it can open up the world, save and change lives. The question is in how much power we allow others to have and what the trade-off for that power might involve. Thought-provoking and compelling.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories)

Tentacle begins with two strands in Santo Domingo: a not too distant but technologically advanced 2027 where Acilde, a maid and former sex worker, needs to escape a crime scene, and a more recent time (early 2010s) where Argenis, an artist, works nights as Psychic Goya on a mystic chatline. When Argenis is invited by Giorgio Menicuccis to take part in a sixth-month artistic project based at Playa Bo, a piece of beach that Giorgio and his wife Linda own and protect, he begins to access the past, becoming entwined with a group of seventeenth-century pirates. In 2027, Alcide, with help from her friend Eric, is injected with a dose of Rainbow Brite which transforms her body into that of a man. Of course, Argenis and Acilde’s stories meet, but I’ll leave you to discover that moment as it’s truly brilliant. Tentacle considers how the past affects the future, with a particular focus on ecology and the natural environment. Often I think books don’t go far enough in their weirder aspects, but Tentacle’s genre-bending, time-bending, fast-paced style is a brilliant ride. 

The Disaster Tourist – Yun Ko-eun, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buhler (Serpent’s Tail)

Yona Ka works for Jungle, a travel agency specialising in trips to disaster zones. After her manager sexually harasses her and she turns up for scheduled meetings to find nobody there, Yona begins to think she’s being targeted for dismissal. Offered the chance to take a trip and review whether or not it should be discontinued, Yona travels to Mui, a desert island with sinkholes and a volcano. When she misses the flight home and is stranded in Mui, Yona begins to see the island from a different perspective and discovers that the place is a much darker one than she realised. A searing critique of capitalism, the impact of tourism on poor countries and our complicity in it. Gripping.

All review copies provided by the publishers as listed.

Women in Translation Month: 100 Best WIT

It’s the first of August and that means it’s Women in Translation month. To find out more about it, head to founder Meytal’s blog and follow the #WITMonth and #womenintranslation hashtags on social media. Throughout the month I’ll be sharing reviews of the books I’ve been reading by women that have been translated into English. To start the month though, I’m posting my contribution to #100BestWIT. The rules are on the photo above so if you haven’t already, add yours to the list. Mine are in alphabetical order because creating a top ten in order of favourites was too difficult. If you click on the title, it will take you to my review of the book.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (tr. Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more. Despentes is a fierce and unflinching writer.
[No link for this one as I’ve reposted the short review I wrote when this was a book of the year in 2017.]

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (tr. Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green, driving his SUV along a difficult track at the end of a nineteen-hour shift, hits and kills a man. Etian thinks no one’s seen him and leaves, but the following morning the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, arrives at Etian’s front door holding Eitan’s wallet. Sirkit makes a deal with him. Then Eitan’s wife, senior detective in the Israeli police force, is assigned to the murder case. A moral dilemma. Flawed humans who are neither wholly good nor bad. A gripping read.

Human Acts – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising and massacre in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Told by seven narrators, including the soul of Jeong-dae, each reveals the events of the uprising, its brutal suppression and the violence of the state. A disturbing and powerful novel.

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (tr. Janet Hong)

A story in two halves. In the first half, is the tale of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child. Mia is privileged and spoiled. The Child lives in poverty and is abused and neglected. In the second half of the book the narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel. Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her. An angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

Tsukiko Omachi and the man she calls Sensei meet regularly – without arrangement – at a bar near the train station. She’s 37 and jaded; he’s in his late 60s, a retired widower. He considers her to be unladylike; she thinks he’s old-fashioned. But they drink together; they go on walks together; he recites to her fragments of the poetry he swears he taught her at school. A beautiful, mostly gentle book about a slow-burning relationship.

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (tr. Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages. Grandmother makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them. The boys begin to do exercises to toughen their bodies and their minds. They also set each other composition exercises which they write in the notebook and which have to be true. Brutal, highly stylised and gripping.

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (tr. Alison Entrekin)

A novel told in four strands. The first, the narrator’s journey to Turkey to her grandfather’s house. The second, the grandfather’s journey to Portugal. The third, the narrator’s relationship with her, now deceased, mother. The fourth, a passionate love affair between the narrator and an unnamed man. A story about exile in various forms and the impact that can have.

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

An unnamed female narrator writes a book about the lesser known Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. She frames this with comments about her current family life and the life she had before she married. Her family think there is a ghost in their house and the narrator spends time ‘with Gilberto Owen’s ghost’ who eventually tries to take over the narration. Clever and engaging.

The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

A mother and her teenage children wait for their husband and father to return from a business trip. The mother has prepared a feast of mussels, but it soon becomes clear that something isn’t right. A tale of an abusive father, narrated by his daughter, this has a tense atmosphere throughout.
[Review by Jacqui who guest-posted some IFFP reviews on my blog before she began her own excellent blog.]

Gender: what is it good for? – Reading Round-Up

The Electric Michelangelo– Sarah Hall

I started the year re-reading my favourite book. For those of you at the back, that’s The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. It tells the story of Cy Parks: his childhood in Morecambe, raised in his mother’s B&B; his apprenticeship to Eliot Riley, the local tattoo artist, and his journey to New York, where he sets up a booth in Coney Island and meets Grace, a woman from war-torn Eastern Europe, who asks him to decorate her body. Throughout the book there’s discussion about women’s bodies and what they’re allowed to do with them but it’s Grace who seems to have the answer:

It will always be about body! Always for us! I don’t see a time when it won’t. I can’t say you can’t have my body, that’s already decided, it’s already obtained. If I had fired the first shot it would have been on a different field – in the mind. All I can do is interfere with what they think is theirs, how it is supposed to look, the rules. I can interrupt like a rude person in a conversation.

I’m not going to give anything away about whether or not she succeeds, I’ll just mention again that it’s my favourite novel of all time and leave you to do the right thing.

My Sister the Serial Killer– Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola, as you can see, has a thing for murdering men, men she’s dated who’ve become angry with her. Korede’s good with the bleach so helps with the clean-up. Two things are about to become a problem though: Femi, the man Ayoola kills at the beginning of the book, has family who want to know what’s happened to him, and Ayoola starts dating Tade, a doctor at the hospital where Korede’s a nurse. A doctor Korede also has a crush on.

Braithwaite examines the role of the patriarchy in the way women behave, both towards men and towards each other. She asks whether we can ever escape our childhoods and if blood really is thicker than water. A smart page turner.

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.

Louis & Louise– Julie Cohen

Louis and Louise, Cohen’s protagonists, are the same child, born to the same parents, in the same place, at the same time. But they are born as two different sexes. Cohen then jumps forward 32 years to show us how their lives have turned out. Lou(ise) is a teacher and single mother to her daughter, Dana, living and working in Brooklyn. Lou(is) is a writer who’s in the process of splitting up with his wife. In both timelines, Lou is summoned home to Casablanca, Maine, because their mother is dying of cancer. This means a confrontation with Allie, Lou’s former best friend, and the uncovering of secrets kept for over a decade.

What I was expecting from Louis & Louise was a critique of gender from the protagonist’s perspective, a ‘look what you could’ve won’ style narrative. But Cohen’s version is more sophisticated than that; she uses the twins, Allie and Benny, Lou’s childhood best friends to explore the restrictions binary gender places on both women and men. There are points where this isn’t a comfortable read [cn for domestic violence, rape and suicide] but Cohen shows that there might be another way. There are a number of points in the book where Louis and Louise’s stories meet. These sections are written as though the character is non-binary, using singular they for their pronoun, and show that some of this person’s experience was identical, regardless of gender. Both versions also end with hope. Louis & Louise is a sophisticated look at gender and love and is well worth your time.

Thanks to Orion for the review copy.

Baise-Moi – Virginie Despentes (translated by Bruce Benderson)

On Sundays, I’ve started giving myself free rein to read whatever I want from my poor, neglected shelves. You know, those books I bought because I wanted to read them that sit there while I go through proofs and reading for work. Woe is me and the books that never get read. I was so enamoured with Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 that I’ve bought everything that’s been translated and decided to start from the beginning.

Baise-Moi translates as Rape Me so let me insert all of the trigger warnings here. Nadine is a sex worker who watches pornography incessantly. Manu has a huge appetite for sex and alcohol. After Manu is raped and Nadine kills her flatmate, the two women’s paths cross and they embark on a killing spree. It seems superfluous to mention it really, but this isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s violent, full of sex and swearing, but also – dare it say it – gripping. There’s an element of excitement in watching two women do something men have dominated for years. Morality aside, of course. Thelma & Louise meets Natural Born Killers.

The Mental Load – Emma (translated by Una Dimitrijevic)

Emma went viral with the comic ‘You Should’ve Asked’ a couple of years ago. The Mental Loadis a collection of her pieces dealing with gender and political issues, ranging from working in a hostile environment to forced caesarean sections to the male gaze to raids on immigrants made under the guise of terrorism laws. The strips are informative, clear and interesting. However, it felt a little feminism/capitalism 101 to me, in which case, I’m not the intended audience. I do heartily recommend that every heterosexual man reads a copy asap though, but not at the expense of doing his share of the housework or childcare.

You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian

Roupenian went viral last year with her story ‘Cat Person’ which was published in The New Yorker. Much has been made of the subsequent high figure deals she then netted for this, her debut collection. I mention it more because it’s become a talking point that as an indicator for how to read the stories – the collection seems to have taken a battering in some quarters because it isn’t what the reader expected it to be on the basis of one story and some publishing money.

If you’re looking for more stories in the same vein as ‘Cat Person’ you get one; ‘The Good Guy’ is the longest story in the collection and tells the story of Ted, who thinks he’s good but is clearly bad. Ted’s one of those men who thinks that because he had female friends, because he was the nice guy who hung around listening to their problems while working out how he might shag them, he’s good. Roupenian (and the rest of us) have news for Ted.

The rest of the stories take a somewhat darker turn. If you were expecting Sally Rooney, prepare for Ottessa Moshfegh without the redeeming qualities. In ‘Bad Boy’ a couple who have a friend staying in their flat know he can hear them having sex, so persuade him to join them; in ‘Sardines’ Tilly makes a birthday wish that will please her mum but cause problems for her dad and his new, younger girlfriend; in ‘Scarred’ the narrator conjures up her heart’s desire to discover that maybe it’s not what she wanted after all. When Roupenian’s at her best, she makes your skin crawl: ‘The Matchbox Sign’, in which Laura discovers bite marks on her skin which her doctor thinks are psychosomatic, made me itch, while ‘Biter’, in which Ellie does what it says, made me wince (and maybe punch the air, a little bit). You Know You Want This isn’t a perfect collection but it’s an interesting one.

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

Madeleine Smith is found next to her husband’s body; he’s been stabbed to death in their bed. Madeleine says she’s guilty but there’s something about her story that doesn’t quite seem right.

Alison is going to take Madeleine’s case – her first murder case, but Alison’s got problems of her own: she’s drinking too much, having an affair with a colleague and someone knows. Her husband, Carl, is a therapist who’s had enough of Alison’s drinking and late nights at work and isn’t afraid to use their daughter, Matilda, to make Alison feel guilty.

Tyce tells the story from Alison’s perspective and – as we follow her thoughts and actions – it starts to become clear that something isn’t quite right.

Because this is a psychological thriller and therefore some of the enjoyment hinges on the twists, I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. However, Tyce takes a very topical look at the behaviour of men and finds them wanting. Blood Orange is fierce, smart, gripping and sticks a very big middle finger up at the patriarchy. Obviously, I loved it.

Thanks to Wildfire for the review copy.

Number One Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li + Q&A

Jimmy Han runs the Bejing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant’s been in his family for thirty years, but Jimmy’s had enough of his brother Johnny’s interference and has bought his own place, the Bejing Glory. Things aren’t going to be that simple though; Jimmy’s short of the investment he needs and he’s hoping his dad’s old friend, Uncle Pang, knows people who can help him out. Uncle Pang’s happy to be involved, although in a slightly different way to the one Jimmy anticipated.

While a tangled web of family secrets and lies is revealed, the novel also focuses on two of the restaurant’s longest serving employees: Nan and Ah-Jack. Nan is the restaurant manager. Ah-Jack has recently returned from retirement to continue working as a waiter, a decision taken by Johnny who values Ah-Jack’s loyalty. Nan spends a significant amount of her day covering for Ah-Jack who spends his time gambling, drinking and, inevitably, making mistakes at work. The rest of Nan’s time is mostly spent on her wayward son, Pat, who’s working in the restaurant’s kitchen and has his eye on Jimmy’s daughter, Annie.

Li crafts an engaging tale of family (dis)loyalties and the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we lead. Number One Chinese Restaurant is an absorbing novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Lillian Li to the blog to talk more about the novel.

The novel’s intergenerational, why did you decide to focus on a range of characters interconnected through family or working relations?

I’ve always been drawn toward stories about communities more than stories with only one main character because I think the way characters bounce off each other is incredibly illuminating, both about who they are as a person, and all the different roles they play within the community. So for example, while Nan, the manager of the Beijing Duck House, is certainly fascinating to me alone, I learn more about her when I see her take such gentle care of her longtime co-worker and friend Ah-Jack and then, that same night, fail to demonstrate the same easy warmth to her troubled son Pat. And I learn even more about why Nan seems to have a deeper relationship with her co-worker than her son within the context of her job at this Chinese restaurant. Hopefully the reader feels the same depth even if each character technically gets fewer pages dedicated to his or her journey.

Initially I was frustrated with the focus on the male characters but the novel slowly reveals these smart, fascinating, sometimes manipulative women. Were you considering gender stereotypes as you were writing?

That’s an interesting question. I think I tend to write my characters by first finding a person I know who can provide a foundation for my imagination. My characters aren’t based on real people because what I layer on top of that foundation is all invented. For example, the matriarch of the Han family, Feng Fei, gets her foundation from my grandmother. Specifically, the curlers they both wear to sleep, the way they complain about how their children treat them, and how they’re both surprisingly ferocious despite their age. But my grandmother never worked in a restaurant, let alone owned one, and so Feng Fei very quickly became her own person, shaped by those specific circumstances. At the same time, I think that character’s foundation in a real, complicated person is what guides me against stereotype and keeps me from straying into the one-dimensional.

The thing I really loved about the book was the way you show how we use stories to build myths about ourselves and our lives. What interests you about this?

I love that that resonated with you! I really believe that people experience the world, and themselves, almost entirely through stories, that it’s our way of understanding, but also controlling our lives. At the same time, I’m frightened by how easily stories take the place of facts, and how we’re almost naturally pulled toward believing “better stories” even if they’re patently untrue, about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. As long as we dismiss the power of the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, we dismiss the potential for delusion and manipulation, but also the potential for connection and change.

The novel’s set in a Chinese restaurant and there are a number of criminal elements to the plot; what sort of research did you do and do you enjoy this element of writing?

There’s a fire that happens in the book and I talked to a fire investigator, Kathleen Summersgill, as part of my research. How I found her in the first place was that strangely enough, my first year in Michigan (where I attended grad school and wrote this novel), a pizza restaurant a few blocks away caught on fire in the middle of a sub-zero January night. A year or so later, at the point in my research when I needed to know how exactly someone starts a fire, and also how that fire might reveal itself to be suspicious to law enforcement, I remembered that potential pizza arson and looked up articles to see if I could find someone to talk to. Kathleen was the investigator on that case. I really enjoyed talking to Kathleen, not only because she helped me write a scene that wasn’t riddled with mistakes, but also because in talking to her, and asking her just generally about her job, I got so much extra knowledge about, essentially, the nature of fire and fire-starters. I was able to totally transform the scene into something that felt real to me. She gave me the necessary confidence to own that scene.

I definitely enjoy talking to people who’ve actually experienced the worlds I write about, criminal or otherwise. I like getting that foundation in reality, though I’m also a bit shy and a bit lazy. I try to remind myself of Kathleen every time I want to wimp out and just Google around for an answer.

My blog focus on female writers; who are you favourite female writers? 

I was introduced to so many amazing female writers who happened to have debut books the same year as me and felt buoyed and energized by their work. Lucy Tan (WHAT WE WERE PROMISED), Crystal Hana Kim (IF YOU LEAVE ME), R.O. Kwon (THE INCENDIARIES), Vanessa Hua (A RIVER OF STARS), Lydia Kiesling (THE GOLDEN STATE), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE), Akil Kumarasamy (HALF GODS), Elaine Castillo (AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE), Rachel Heng (SUICIDE CLUB), Aja Gabel (THE ENSEMBLE), Fatima Farheen Mirza (A PLACE FOR US), Inez Tan (THIS IS WHRE I WON’T BE ALONE), and Nicole Chung (ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW) are just a few of my favorites.

Other favorite writers who’ve already had a number of books under their talented belts include Susan Choi (whose new book TRUST EXERCISE blew my mind), Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Lily King.

And of course, there are the powerhouses and legends. Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

There are so many more, but those are the handful that jump to mind.

Thanks to Lillian Li for the interview and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of the novel.

Books of the Year 2018

It’s been an unusual reading year for me; new work has meant I’ve read lots of things I wouldn’t have otherwise and it’s no coincidence that, for the first time, there’s a poetry collection included here. It’s also the first time there’s been a graphic novel in my list, although I’ve confused myself here as The One Hundred Nights of Hero is one of my favourite books and I’ve no idea why it didn’t make the list last year. Anyway, here’s my favourite fifteen books published in 2018, if there’s a theme to the list it’s this: feminist as fuck.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Until last week, I’d known what my book of the year was since May. And then I read Milkman. An eighteen-year-old woman walks the streets of what appears to be Belfast, although the setting is never named, reading classic literature. An encounter with a paramilitary man called Milkman sets off rumours about her and him, leading to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in which the community, and her own family, draw conclusions from hearsay. Since Milkman won this year’s Booker Prize, much has been made of its apparently challenging nature. To me, it read like someone telling an anecdote in the pub, the story both moving forwards and circling back, characters known by nicknames and monikers. It’s a superb read: often funny, resolutely feminist, and possibly the best book about the Troubles I’ve read.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

This is the book that was knocked off the number one spot at the last minute. Ghost Wall is the story of teenager, Silvie, as she takes part in an Iron Age reconstruction with her family. Her father is particularly keen that things should be as authentic as possible and it soon becomes clear that his views on women are severely outdated. The tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss’ writing is taut, sharp and will keep you on edge. My mini-review is here.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

When I read Everything Under earlier in the year, I described it on Twitter as spellbinding, the first time I’ve ever described a novel as such; the prose is mesmerising though. Gretal works as a lexicographer and is attempting to get Sarah, her estranged mother, to tell her story, allowing Gretal to fill in the gaps in her adolescence. Johnson reworks the Oedipus myth as an exploration of gender and mother/daughter relationships. Absolutely worthy of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo

Hero is an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a former prisoner of war. She leaves the Philippines to live with her uncle’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years. In San Fransisco, she begins to rebuild her life and makes friends who’ll become her new family. Castillo explores ideas of home through language, food, family, friendship and love. Big, bold and absorbing. My full review and interview with Elaine is here.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I wouldn’t have read Three Poems if Hannah Sullivan hadn’t been booked for Manchester Literature Festival and I’m so glad she was. Poem one tells of the narrator’s time in New York, living and dating; two of moving to California and repetition, and three of the birth of her son and the death of her father. As a whole, it’s an impressive piece of work, while individual lines have stayed with me for months.

Whiskey & Ribbons – Leesa Cross-Smith

Eamon is killed when his wife, Evi, is nine-months pregnant. In the grief that follows, Dalton, Eamon’s adopted brother moves in to support Evi in raising Noah. As Evi and Dalton try to come to terms with their loss, they begin to grow closer. A beautifully written story of love, loss and longing. The story’s expanded from some pieces in Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection Every Kiss a War which I reviewed here.

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui

Triggered by the birth of her first child, Thi Bui tells the story of her parents emigrating to the USA, intertwined with the history of Vietnam. Through it she begins to understand the experiences which shaped her parents and herself. Compelling and beautifully illustrated.

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Christine Pizan is in her final year on CIEL and she’s planning to go out in spectacular style. She’s creating a skin graft telling the true story of Joan of Dirt, a story which has been outlawed by CEIL’s ruler, Jean de Men. Fierce, feminist and concerned with climate change, I’m still reeling from The Book of Joan ten months later. My full review is here.

To Throw Away Unopened – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine’s second memoir is more personal than her first and all the better for it. Alongside the end of her marriage and her foray into dating again, she reconsiders her upbringing after the death of her father and the discovery of a bag of documents previously unseen. This is also considered alongside the death of her mother, which is detailed gradually as the book progresses and also her relationship with her sister which culminates in an unforgettable scene at their mother’s hospital bed. A powerful look at family stories and relationships and the impact they have on women.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Another discovery thanks to Manchester Literature Festival. Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad focuses on Briseis, largely telling the tale from her perspective. It’s brutal and brash, showing the men for spoilt, squabbling brats while giving women a voice in one of the oldest stories in literature. My full review is here.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

Melmoth is condemned to wander the world, watching and collecting those of us who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. While Helen Franklin discovers the various accounts of Melmoth, Perry uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to atrocities from the Holocaust to the violent deportation of immigrants, forcing the reader to question their complicity. Compelling and uncomfortable reading. My mini-review is here.

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

There was a spate of books considering motherhood this year, Sight was one of the best. The narrator documents her thinking about whether or not she should become a parent alongside her memories of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst; the death of her mother, and medical developments including the creation of the X-ray. Clever and exquisitely written.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin, a student at an elite NY university, is drawn into a cult intent on committing a terrorist act. Outsider, Will Kendall becomes close to Phoebe and, following her disappearance, tells the story of their relationship and what he knows about cult leader, John Leal. Compelling.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee

Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time and Places I Stopped on the Way Home was one of them. Fee writes about her time in NYC, dating, living in shared houses, managing her recovery from an eating disorder, and what she learned about how to live. I underlined a lot. My review is here.

Snap – Belinda Bauer

In the first chapter of Snap, Jack and his sisters are left in the family car, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as their mum goes to telephone for help. She never returns. It seems as though this is going to be a straight psychological thriller until chapter two jumps three years. Now Jack and his siblings live alone, the police are investigating a cat burglar they’ve called Goldilocks and pregnant Catherine has found a knife and a threatening note next to her bed. This is crime if it was written by Kate Atkinson and Lissa Evans; it’s about people not being who you think they are and what family will do to protect each other. It’s also very funny. I stayed up late to finish it in one sitting.

Backlist Books of the Year 2018

Some of the best books I read this year weren’t published in 2018 so I thought I’d put them in a separate round-up. I always try and keep this to ten books, I haven’t managed it this year, here’s twelve instead.

Union Street – Pat Barker

One day I’ll learn to read a writer’s work before judging it. I’ve always assumed that Pat Barker wrote books about men in war, then I had to read The Silence of the Girls to write the copy for her Manchester Literature Festival event. I posted a picture of me reading it on my personal Instagram and the brilliant Adelle Stripe mentioned Barker’s earlier, feminist works which she thought I’d like. She was right. Union Street begins with Kelly, stalked by an older man, then moves along the street, chapter-by-chapter, to tell the tales of the other women and girls. It’s a grim read filled with neglect, abuse, pregnancy and death but it captures life for white working class women and still feels as relevant in 2018 as it would’ve done in 1982.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire moves Sophocles’ Antigone to the present, telling the story of twins Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz. When the young women meet Eamonn Lone, son of the UK’s first Muslim Home Secretary, all of their lives are irrevocably changed. A compelling retelling which places a spotlight on the West’s treatment of Muslims and ideas of integration. My full review is here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Narrated by 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie, and the ghost of a boy named Richie, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a Black family in Southern America who can’t escape the ghosts of the past. Ward intertwines family history with that of Black people in North America and uses the present day to show the damage that history has wrought. It’s a devastating and timely tale. My mini-review is here.

A Thousand Paper Birds – Tor Udall

Another example of my work leading me to a book I’d previously overlooked. I was asked to interview Udall as part of a panel at Jersey Festival of Words and A Thousand Paper Birds was a real surprise. Jonas’ wife is dead. He retreats to Kew Gardens as a place to try and heal. There he meets Chloe, Harry and Millie, all of whom are keeping their own secrets. Beautifully written and affecting, an absolute gem.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (some sections translated by Lizzie Davies)

Another timely work. In 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Through the questions the children are asked, Luiselli tells some of their stories and the wider tale of how these children are being failed. My full review is here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Conceived as a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ and the first in a trilogy about Levy’s life and work, Things I Don’t Want to Know is a feminist discussion on women’s writing. Levy talks about the need to speak up, to write calmly through rage, to find a space in which to write. I underlined a lot.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

An unnamed woman struggles with new motherhood in a new country. She’s angry and frustrated but also full of love and lust, all of which spill out at inappropriate moments. Harwicz questions society’s expectations of women in this inventive, sharp novella. My full review is here.

The White Book – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

A fractured, often brutal book about Han’s sister who died two hours after she was born. Han uses the colour white repetitively as a meditation on grief and loss, writing her sister back into existence. Beautifully translated by Smith, The White Book is short and highly affecting but not without hope.

Kindred – Octavia Butler

One of the bookish things I’ve most enjoyed this year is taking part in the #ReadWomenSF discussions on Twitter, led by the writer G X Todd. It’s meant I’ve read a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and Kindred was one of them. In 1976, Dana, a young Black woman, is pulled into 1815 where she saves a young white boy’s life. He is the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s relatives. Through Dana, Rufus and Dana’s white husband, Kevin, Butler explores structural inequality, complicity and the normalising of horrific behaviour, all of which doesn’t seem so distant in 2018.

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

Last year I loved Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said so this year I went back to the beginning and read her debut, The Poison Tree. In 1997, Karen meets Biba and is swept into her bohemian lifestyle. In 2007, Karen and her daughter Alice, collect their husband and father from prison. We know that at the end of the summer in 1997 two people died. But we don’t know how and we don’t know who. Tightly plotted and compelling with a perfect ending.

Die a Little – Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is one of those writers that everyone seems to rave about so I decided to start at the beginning with her debut. Set on the edges of Hollywood during the Golden Age, Die a Little, tells the story of school teacher Lora King’s investigation into her new sister-in-law, Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant. As her findings build, Lora uncovers a world of drugs and sex work as well as some secrets about her own life. Possibly the only book I’ve ever read that I thought was too short.

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic

Caleb Zelic’s best friend dies in his arms in the opening pages of Resurrection Bay and the pace doesn’t let up until the end of the book. His best friend has been murdered and Caleb’s turns investigator to find out who did it. His mission is made all the more interesting – and sometimes scary – because Caleb’s deaf meaning sometimes he picks up on cues others might miss and other times he doesn’t hear people sneaking up on him. There are subplots involving his estranged relations – a brother and a wife – and some fun with Australian sign language too. My review of the follow-up And Fire Came Down is here, along with an interview with Emma Viskic.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

I’ve been lax in keeping up with reviewing my #WITMonth reading, mostly because I’ve been busy helping to launch the programme for Manchester Literature Festival. I mention that because Ariana Harwicz, the author of Die, My Love will be at the Festival on Saturday 20thOctober. I can’t wait to hear her talk about this powerful, angry book.

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate.

I lay back in the grass among the fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

Full of contradictions, she loves her family but feels stifled by them. Life has become alien to her in every way. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her.

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things […] I trap [flies] in the jar with a swift twist of the lid, then sit with the baby on my knee and watch them slide around in the jelly. Sitting comfortably on the swing, I electrocute bees and teach the wasp that wants a piece of me a lesson. My son and I stuff clusters of ants into matchboxes and set them on fire.

The anger that women are expected to supress explodes everywhere – in the supermarket, in the bedroom, at family gatherings. The narrator is given help and support but it only emphasises the question of whether women or society are at fault.

The book’s written in short chapters – some as fleeting as pieces of flash fiction – that move forward in time while circling the same issues, much like in life. The tone is abrupt and sharp, echoing the feelings of the narrator. Die, My Love isn’t an easy read, either in terms of its subject matter or its delivery, but it is an angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Thanks to Charco Books for the review copy.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Lizzie Davis)

August is my favourite bookish month of the year: women in translation month. Lots of bloggers and publishers get involved; you can follow what’s happening via the hashtag #WITMonth and the @Read_WIT account run by Meytal Radzinski who founded the whole thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading and discussing.

First up for me is a very timely book in terms of the recent incarceration of immigrant children in America (although there are messages here for many other countries including the UK). It’s a little bit of a cheat too as Luiselli wrote some of the text in English – the book began life as an article for Freeman’s and then was expanded on in Spanish and those sections were translated by Lizzie Davis – but this is an important piece of work and #WITMonth seemed a good time to review it.

In 2015, Luiselli begins work as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children who’ve crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America.

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

Luiselli divides her account of her experience into four stages: border, court, home, community. This comes from a list her niece sees on a board in one of the interview rooms; it’s there to help the migrant children recall their journey into the country. She parallels their journey with parts from her own life. Luiselli and her husband are also migrants. Having applied for their green cards, they can’t leave the country so drive across to Arizona as a holiday. They are stopped by border patrol who want to know what business they have being there.

The forty questions in the book’s title refer to those the children are asked in order for the group of charities who offer support to assess how they might build a legal case for them. Question seven is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” This allows Luiselli to give us the statistics:

Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.

The number of abduction victims between April and September 2010 was 11,333.

Some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.

She makes it clear that listening to the children’s stories horrifies her but it is these details that can be used to strengthen their case to stay in the U.S.

As she undertakes this work, Luiselli teaches an Advanced Conversation class at a local university. There she begins to discuss the immigration crisis. This leads to the students deciding to do something positive and hopeful and allows Luiselli to follow one of the boys she has interpreted for to something close to an ending. What this also highlights though is how the U.S. is complicit in the creation of these migrants: the boy, who she calls Manu, encounters the same problem in New York state which led him to leave Mexico in the first place.

Of course, America isn’t the only country to create a situation which leads to migration and then close its borders – the UK and other European countries have done the same, most recently with Syrian refugees.

Luiselli’s reason for writing the book is a very clear message to us all:

…perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalising horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

The horror and the violence are made stark in Tell Me How It Ends. It’s a difficult book to read at times but, as Luiselli says, it’s also one we can’t afford to look away from.

Trauma in Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Kindred by Octavia Butler and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My favourite thing on Twitter at the moment is the monthly discussions about sci-fi and fantasy books by women, led by the writer Gem Todd (author of Defender and Hunted as GX Todd). Each month we vote on a selection of books before reading and then discussing the most popular choice. In May and June we discussed two novels by black women which dealt with different types of trauma – the classic Kindred by Octavia Butler and the Afrofuturist, soon-to-be a HBO series, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a 26-year-old black woman living a few miles from LA with her white husband, Kevin. It’s 1976. As they unpack the boxes in their new home, Dana begins to feel dizzy and sick. She’s pulled from 1976 to 1815 where a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. Dana saves him but then is almost shot by the boy’s father. As she stares down the barrel of his rifle, she travels forwards to 1976 where Kevin tells her she’s only been missing for a few seconds.

Later that evening, Dana finds herself back with Rufus who is now three or four years older and attempting to set fire to the curtains in the room he’s in. It soon becomes clear that Rufus is the son of a plantation owner and also a relative of Dana’s.

Over the course of the novel, Dana is repeatedly called to Rufus when he is in mortal danger. She’s tied to him in the sense that she seems to be the only person who can save him from himself and also because she exists due to his relationship with her ancestor, Alice, a free black girl who lives outside the bounds of the plantation with her mother, who is also free.

The complexity of Dana’s link to Rufus allows Butler to explore ideas of structural inequality, complicity and the way in which horrific behaviour can be normalised.

Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder.

Kindred is a difficult and disturbing read – as it should be. The moral complexity of Butler’s tale also makes it a thoughtful one and raises questions about our own behaviour in a time where white supremacy is highly visible once again.

Onyesonwu is the protagonist of Who Fears Death, the title being the meaning of her name in an ancient language. Onyesonwu is an Ewu – the product of rape – and has been shunned because of it. The novel begins with her telling us that the father who raised her, who looked beyond what she was to who she was, died. In the four years since his death a lot has happened. She dictates this to an unknown scribe with a laptop during the two days she has left to live.

She tells of her upbringing in the desert with her mother. Of finally settling in a town and going to school. Of the friends she makes, including Mwita, a boy who is also Ewu. She also reveals that she is more than she seems:

“There was a vulture,” I said. “Looking right at me. Close enough for me to see its eyes. I threw a rock at it and as it flew off, one of its feathers fell off. A long black one. I…went and picked it up. I was standing there wishing I could fly as it did. And then…I don’t…”
“You changed,” Mwita said. He was looking at me very closely.
“Yeah! I became the vulture. I swear to you! I’m not making this..”
[…]
“You’re an Eshu,” he said.
“A what?” The word sounded like a sneeze.
“An Eshu. You can shape-shift, among other things.”

Onyesonwu is being hunted by something that repeatedly appears to her as an oval eye. In order to help her harness her powers and defeat the thing that seeks her, she tries to get Aro, the sorcerer, to teach her. He rejects her while apprenticing Mwita. Why? Because she’s a girl.

Who Fears Death is a coming of age story that deals with first love, friendship and sex. It also looks at power – who has it, how it can be used, how to defeat it and what happens when it goes wrong. Okorafor considers how society treats women, including men who would view themselves as supportive of women but still fall foul of their own egos. The book’s strength lies in Onyesonwu’s youth and flaws – she doesn’t transform into a strong, all-conquering woman but has to deal with her fallibility and her mistakes – and also in the friendship between four young women, including Onyesonwu, which develops as the novel progresses. It’s an interesting and inventive story but also a slightly overlong one.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Kindred.