Category Archives: Women In Translation

Read 111 of 2022. These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy. Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor

These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy

Title: These Possible Lives: Essays
Author: Fleur Jaeggy
Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor
Publisher: New Directions Books
ISBN: 9780811226875
Genre: Nonfiction, Essays
Pages: 64
Source: The Boxwalla
Rating: 5/5

This short luminous book consists of three essays of these lives – Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. These writers, whose lives were brief, but perhaps full – each life ultimately centred on death by the author.

Jaeggy’s brevity shines on each page. She doesn’t find the need to ramble on about each of them – saying what she must, and does so with great simplicity, sometimes wit, straightforwardness, and for some maybe not enough, but worked beautifully for me.

The biographies (if I can call them that) extend themselves most naturally to the subjects’ habits, physicality, to their friends, their lives, and finally leading all to death. There is so much going on in these essays, using history, masculinity, the violence, and melancholy that runs throughout. Proctor’s translation makes it even more lyrical, though fragmented, disjointed, and surreal – reading as prose poems more than anything.

They draw you in, and I am sure I will read more about these lives in days to come. These Possible Lives is a short treat for readers – meditative and emotional.

Read 33 of 2022. Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum. Translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi

Sin by Wajida Tabassum

Title: Sin: Stories
Author: Wajida Tabassum
Translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi
Publisher: Hachette India
ISBN: 9789391028886
Genre: Short Stories, Women in Translation
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Wajida Tabassum wrote at a time about women and their lives, when it was practically unheard of. That too of Muslim women and their lives – hidden behind veils or traditions – the lives that no one knew about or did but didn’t speak of it – she chronicled all of it in her short stories that bridge the gap between ignorance and truth.

Tabassum came from a family that had seen immense amount of wealth but by the time she turned nine, it was all squandered and both her parents were dead. Her maternal grandmother took care of her and her siblings, selling her jewelry to provide for their education and daily living. They had to go through immense hardships that she then wrote about in a short narrative titled “Meri Kahaani” (My Story).

Wajida started writing short stories at an early age. She wrote about the world she knew and did it with humour, bite, and the desperation of women in it who want a way out but do not get that exit. The book is about the spaces they inhabit and how men are all-pervasive, extremely territorial and want more and more – Tabassum covers four aspects of “sin” – lust, pride, greed, and envy. There are 18 stories in all – dissecting, humanizing, dehumanizing, rarely empowering, and mostly placing the woman at the center of dilemmas, confusion, weakness, and sacrifices.

There are also times when female agency kicks in very strong. For instance, the first story Chhinaal (Fallen Venus) is about a courtesan Gauhar Jaan and her marriage to one of her patrons, how she is treated in the family, and what happens when she decides to take some matters in her hand. There is sadness and a lingering feeling of helplessness, yet you know that Gauhar did what she wanted to, on her terms. Or even Talaq, Talaq, Talaq (Separation) where Mehru takes matters in her own hand when Nawab Sarkar forces her husband to divorce her.

Tabassum’s women are creatures of circumstance and the time they lived in. Her stories are set in Hyderabad, right after the partition, and some before. The exact timeline is not known but you get an idea as you go along reading them. Her women are full of desire, longing, craving, and also ambition – mostly these do not see the light of the day, but when they do you want to cheer out loud as a reader.

In Lungi Kurta (The Exchange), a wife gives a befitting response to a husband’s infidelity and wayward ways. Zakat (The Alms of Death) exposes the hypocrisy of nawabs (as do the other stories in the book), and how Ujala a young girl manages to do that.

Wajida Tabassum’s stories are steeped in honesty. They reflect the times she witnessed – the dynamics between the women and men across class, caste, and what society expects of them. Reema Abbasi’s translation does not make you want more as a reader. It is perfect, bringing to fore the worlds, the language (without footnotes or glossary, which is a huge relief), the nuances of living in a world full of custom and rituals, and above all doing most justice to the original.

Wajida Tabassum is a treat for readers who love the short-story form and want to experiment with new writers, thereby expanding their horizon and clearing biases, page after page.

Read 29 of 2022. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Title: Heaven
Author: Mieko Kawakami Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509898244
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Heaven triggered memories that should’ve been left alone and not touched. The memories of being bullied at school, by four boys who called me their friend, and yet would bully me every single day for five years.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami is perhaps all our story – of the ones who were bullied at high-school, the monstrosity of it all, the nightmare, and the solace found in unexpected people.

The book isn’t an easy read. Kawakami will not make it easy and redemptive. The bullies will bully and will think of innovative ways of doing so, for instance, taking the unnamed narrator’s head and using it as a football. The description isn’t nice. It isn’t meant to be. It is raw and gritty.

The unnamed fourteen-year-old (who also has a lazy eye) goes through all of this and more, till he meets someone at school – Kojima – a kindred spirit, a classmate who is also being bullied by a bunch of vicious girls, through exchange of notes, their friendship blossoming, and they rarely meet. Over a summer break, they visit an art museum, where Kojima plans to show him her favourite painting about men and women who have discovered harmony and joy after immense suffering. She calls the painting “Heaven”.

The book is set in early 1990s in Japan and to me it was the most beautiful meditation on the nature of suffering, coming of age, and what it is like to perhaps overcome in some manner or the other. They aren’t lovers. They will never be. But they are bound by their suffering and constantly asking questions around it: What is it? When will it end? Why are they going through it?

The translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is concise and to the point. Having read Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami, also translated by them, I can say that the tone is spot-on. The atmosphere of the school world of Japan in the 90s is clearly communicated. I loved how the translation does not ramble away to explain anything – it lets the prose be for people to see and doesn’t tell anything.

Heaven is a book that might seem YA as it did to me when I started off but worked on so many other levels. The poignancy of growing up, but to have to do so when being exposed to bullying made me go through all of my school life in my head, and it wasn’t easy at all. Perhaps it was extremely cathartic as I did find myself not reading after a point and tearing up, but it was also needed to revisit it all, for life like fiction to transform.

Read 14 of 2022. Blue by Emmelie Prophète. Translated from the French by Tina Kover

Blue by Emmelie Prophète

Title: Blue
Author: Emmelie Prophète
Translated from the French by Tina Kover Publisher: Amazon Crossing
ISBN: 978-1542031295
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 126
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Blue isn’t an easy novel to read. It is short and requires work from the reader, in the sense to keep pace with what’s going on. Time is fluid and it travels without warning. There is a lot of back and forth – given it is a stream of consciousness novel, and that to me is one of its major selling points.

Blue is a lyrical memoir of Haiti. It is a story of the narrator and her life there before she moved. It is a story of her mother and two aunts and all of this is replayed as the narrator sits at an airport, waiting for a flight from Miami back to her native island.

Emmelie Prophète writes about Port-au-Prince through the daily lives of its inhabitants, the ones that aren’t visible sometimes – resisting and inviting voyeurism. We don’t get to see the city as much through its blueprint as much as we do through the narrator – in a minimal space of that of an airport. The comparisons are made – from where the narrator is to what has been left behind, and sometimes event similarities. That of women being subdued, of people making sense of their identities as they go along, and how Haitians are portrayed in North American media, and how it impacts them as people.

There is so much to unpack in this novel. From the outside world to the inside sanctum of thoughts and prayers, Prophète reveals the narrator’s emotions and thoughts in relation to incidents of the past and how it all ties up to the present.

Blue also conveys a sense of solitude – the airport, the island, the inner workings of the mind, the stream of consciousness, and more than anything – the distances between places gives the reader a strong feeling of isolation and contemplation.

The writing is fluid. The translation is reflective of it, on every page. Kover makes it a point to show most of the time and not tell through the translation. It makes you want more, and imagine the most. Sometimes it is tough to keep up with the plot – so much so that it seems like there is no linear plot and yet you know it is the story of a place, of home that is synonymous with the colour Blue, the one that is about forgotten memories, painful ones, that surface once in a while, as you wait to be transported.

Read 1 of 2022. Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Title: Winter in Sokcho
Author: Elisa Shua Dusapin
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Publisher: Daunt Books Originals
ISBN: 9781911547549
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella, Translations
Pages: 154
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Dusapin’s debut novel is about a young biracial Korean woman living and working in a small guesthouse in Sokcho, South Korea, a beach town that is quite close to the North Korean border. It is almost possible to take a day trip over the border.

The narrator, the woman is unnamed. She has returned to her hometown from her university in Seoul to be close to her mother. She doesn’t know her father as he left before she was born. She works as a live-in receptionist and a cook at the aforementioned guest house and that is when she encounters a middle-aged French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand, who has come to Sokcho to seek inspiration and work on his new project. He is perhaps old enough to be her father, maybe that’s why the strong feelings she feels towards him.

Nothing happens more or less. Time passes and then there are moments. There is no definitive action and maybe that’s when Sokcho plays such a huge role in the book – the broodiness of the town, the season of winter shining through and looming large on the lives of everyone – right from food consumed to the smells to the octopus to also the constant terror from South Korea, and mainly the isolation.

The protagonist’s relationship with food is the one she has with her life – always thinking nothing is good enough – so she eats and purges it all out. Her physical body then becomes a thing of critique by her mother, her aunt, and even Kerrand to a large extent.

Winter in Sokcho is an unusual book in the sense that it says so much in so little. The brevity of the prose had me from the start. Dusapin conserves her words, using them only if really needed to. Some sentences are staggering – like the one about not knowing the outside world, of just staying in Sokcho and nothing happening there. The translation from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins is sharp and precise.

Winter in Sokcho delivers such a potent story, that you cannot help but think about it later. There is this constant ache that lingers – of lost communication, of expressions that are not understood, and emotions that are better hidden than told. Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho captures desire, motherhood, life along a border town, loneliness, and above all the need to make sense of one’s surroundings most beautifully, also making us aware of the darkness beneath the surface.

Books/Authors mentioned in Winter in Sokcho:

Guy de Maupassant