Category Archives: Women In Translation

North Station by Bae Suah. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

North Station by Bae Suah Title: North Station
Author: Bae Suah
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Publisher: Open Letter Press
ISBN: 978-1940953656
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always maintained that most of the time the short story has so much more to say than a novel on so many levels. Whether it is Munro or Atwood, or Murakami, or Carver, or Anita Desai – each of their short-story collections to me is progressively better than their novels (barring Carver as he only wrote short stories). Something about the craft of the short story that always draws me to it. The same is the case with Bae Suah’s collection “North Station”.

Emotionally haunting and stimulating, these seven stories represent the entire range of Suah’s distinctive voice and style. Each story then somehow has multiple storylines which lends them a different dimension. The stories then again aren’t easy to follow, but I am glad I kept up and didn’t abandon the read. You have to slow down and get perspective of the author’s space and time. I guess only then will one truly understand these stories.

A writer is struggling to come to terms with the death of her mentor. A play’s staging goes awry. There is also a story when time freezes for two lovers on a platform and more that make you aware of the range of the beauty in Suah’s writing. The translation then again is spot-on. The stories contain the element of the European and German style of writing, that somehow lends itself very well to Korean characters and places they inhabit.

Deborah Smith has ensured that the translation doesn’t take away from the original – in the sense that you can read Korean even though it is in English. The stories themselves like I said are all over the place – in terms of places, people, time, and jumping from one narrative to another. All said and done, this is one short story collection you must read for sure.

 

All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos. Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore

All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos Title: All My Goodbyes
Author: Mariana Dimópulos
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore
Publisher: Transit Books
ISBN: 978-1945492150
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

All My Goodbyes is a strange read. A strange read that is also very satisfying on so many levels. It is a love story, a story of trauma and violence, and also a story of memory told in fragments.

The book is about the disconnected life of an Argentine woman who is rootless, constantly moving from one place to another, leaving the people who take care of her. She is scared of any emotion (I think) and doesn’t even carry emotions with her as she leaves. She then reaches the southernmost region of Patagonia, convinced that she has finally found home and happiness, till she is caught up in murders that seem to take over her life.

Dimópulos’s writing is sharp and exacting. There is no beating around the bush. It is thread-bare and works on so many levels for a book of this nature. It isn’t an easy read to begin with – the narrative moves between time and space, in almost every paragraph. However, it is very fulfilling if you keep at it.

Sentences and plot changes jump at you unexpectedly, which to me is the main strength of this read. The aura of mystery is maintained right till the end, including the life of the narrator that always keeps you second-guessing. The translation by Alice Whitmore is spot-on and manages to recreate everything the author intended it to be (again I am only going by what I have read).

All My Goodbyes is constantly moving like the narrator. It forces you to surrender to the story and let the book take you where it has to. I suggest don’t make much of it to begin with. Just read with an open mind and that is enough. More than enough to understand how we are connected to fellow humans in the larger scheme of the world and our place in it.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim Title: Grass
Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770463622
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Memoir
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

 

Before reading Grass, I wasn’t aware of “comfort women”. I wasn’t aware of how they were treated by Japanese soldiers. These women were largely Korean and were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation of Korea before and during World War II. This is the account of how the atrocity of war ruins women’s lives – no matter the country, no matter the place – the suffering of women is universal. Men go to battle. Women get raped. Men go to battle. Women must bear all consequences.

Grass is the story of a Korean girl named Okseon Lee (becoming Granny Lee Ok-sun) – from her childhood to how she became a comfort woman to depicting the cost of war and the importance of peace. The “comfort woman” experience was most traumatic for Korean women that took place from 1910 to 1945, till they were liberated from the Japanese.

This book is painstakingly honest and brutal. It moves the reader but does not take away from the story and the truth, as should be the case. It is as I said before a woman’s story as a survivor – undergoing kidnapping, abuse, and rape in time of war and imperialism.

Grass opens at a time in Granny Lee Ok-sun’s life when she travels back home to Korea in 1996, having spent fifty-five years as a wife and a mother in China. Kim’s interviews with Granny is what forms the base of this book. Some memories surface clearly, some don’t, and yet it doesn’t take away from the book at all.

To tell such a story through the graphic medium doesn’t reduce the significance or the emotional quotient of the narrative. I found myself most moved so many times in the course of this read. Just the idea that these women were not given the agency to think or feel for themselves, and treated with such brutality, made me think of PTSD and how they didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain this or understand what they were going through. All they knew was they had to be alive, no matter what. In the hope of either being saved by strangers, or finding ways to escape “comfort houses”, to get away from conditions where getting a proper meal is a luxury, where your child is taken away from you, where men constantly enter and exit at will, and ultimately to feel human.

The artwork by Kim is brilliant. The scenes that are tough to digest are portrayed with such beauty – in the sense that it exists, hovers above you as you read it, and yet somehow makes you understand, keeping the dignity of the women. I think also to a large extent, the book is what it is because of the translation – which is so nuanced and on point when it comes to brevity and communicating what it has to.

Grass is a book that needs to be read to understand how people get away with the utmost damage to the human soul. Given the fight of haves and have-nots, of gender differences, of how unequal society is, this book should be read, and reread to understand where violence and also empathy comes from.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt. Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back- Carl's Book by Naja Marie Aidt Title: When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book
Author: Naja Marie Aidt
Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566895606
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You cannot overcome grief. Grief hangs around, till it decides to leave you. Till such time you cannot get rid of it. It will not let go. As Naja Marie Aidt puts it so eloquently, that it breaks your heart: “Sorrow cannot be cured”.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book is a book about Naja’s son Carl and how she and her family lost him when he was twenty-five years old. Lost him to what? Lost him to whom? How does one overcome such a loss? Does one really? The answer is always no.

The book is about Carl. His life, his loves, his innocence, his need to be there for everyone, and his love for his friends and family. Naja bares it all. She gives it all to the reader – in the form of Carl’s notes, his poems, her poems, other writer’s works on death, grief, and loss. From Whitman’s poetry (which she found in her son’s green jacket afterward) to Anne Carson and Gilgamesh, this quest is also personal (only personal) – that of understanding the nature of loss and how to cope with it (if there’s a way to it).

We all have different ways to deal with death. How many of us acknowledge the loss and speak of it again and again and again? How many of us choose to ignore what we feel and continue as though nothing has happened? The loss of a loved one cannot be contained. The loss of a child more so.

Naja’s book made me see how I deal with death. How I manage my emotions, what I feel, how I communicate, and what happens to me when someone beloved is no more.

The book tore me severely in so many places. The times she speaks of her son – always so lovingly, the way she speaks of who he was and what he was made of, her anger at her son not being present in the world, how he was buried, the future he could’ve had, the reactions of the family, and more – all of them shook me, made me weep, and made me realise how important it is to tell people you love them – to make them know it again and again and again. Death isn’t easy. Living without is most difficult. We all hold on to scraps of memories. That is all what remains.

And here is Naja Marie Aidt’s interview about the book. A must-watch:

 

The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas by K.R. Meera. Translated from the Malayalam by J. Devika

The Angel's Beauty Spots - Three Novellas by K.R. Meera Title: The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas
Author: K.R. Meera
Translated from the Malayalam by J. Devika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292832
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 136
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It has been ten days since I finished reading The Angel’s Beauty Spots, a collection of three novellas by the hugely talented writer, K.R. Meera. The book hangs heavy in my mind and heart. K.R. Meera’s writing has the knack of doing that – of worming its way through your heart and then the feeling of melancholia sets in strong.

 Why you ask?

Well because her stories are steeped in reality not very far removed from the world around us. A world where women have to struggle to make themselves seen, heard, and most of the time even loved.

These novellas are about women who do all of the above and more. They are fiercely independent and yet strangely tied to their men. They are lost, and not in the sense that they don’t know what’s in store for them, but they just wish it was easier, comfortable, and perhaps even simple. But would they be any happier if their lives were all of this? I guess not.

K.R. Meera’s women have this unique voice to them. This gumption, and yet this vulnerability that can overtake everything else. The hidden nuances as the world moves on around them. She creates a world that isn’t the one we live in or that’s the feeling I get when I read her every single time.

The book is divided in three novellas, as the title suggest.  The first is the titular novella about Angela who lives life on her terms (a string of convenient affairs and a failed marriage) and raises two girls single-handedly till tragedy strikes and things go way out of control.

The second novella (previously published as well), And Forgetting the Tree, I.. is about Radhika and the return of a long-time lover in her life and the consequences thereof.

The last novella is titled The Deepest Blue about a wife who yearns more and longs for more than her husband can offer and seeks solace in the arms of a love that transcends time.

These are the premise of the novellas. It may seem ordinary till it isn’t. Meera’s writing infuses life, disappointment, a heavy heartedness, a feeling that won’t leave, and a claustrophobic sense of hopelessness in almost every novella. And yet, there is love. There is tenderness, and moments that redeem these women. There is violence, there is also rape, and there is a lot of anger as well. Meera’s characters like I mentioned earlier, do not have it easy. They are forever drifting to find their place in the world.

There is something about them – a tenacity and a sort of attitude that also wants to give up quite easily. And adding to that the translation by J. Devika as always is wondrous – stringing it all together for the English language reader, keeping the imagery and sense of prose intact.

The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas is a great introduction to K.R. Meera’s works if you haven’t read her before. For those who have, you are in for a treat. Either way, read her and be mesmerised by the dark places of the human soul she is willing to explore and present it to her readers.