Women In Translation Month August 2017

August is Women in Translation month. Thanks to the effort and dedication of book blogger Meytal Radzinki (Bibliobio: http://biblibio.blogspot.co. uk/), literary social media is celebrating works in translation written by women. Stats regarding translations as a share of books published in the UK are depressing enough, but it gets worse when you realize that whatever does get through the general apprehension towards the great wide world out there tends to exclude a great deal of women writers. Only one third of translated books are written by women and even fewer are promoted and talked up for end of year lists.
Enter the hashtag.
#WITMonth has developed into something of a reader activism campaign, but as important and necessary as it is, it’s also F U N. I love checking the latest round of recommendations every evening and this year I’ve made myself a map. We’re only one week in and I’ve discovered writers from Cape Verde, Macedonia, Finland, Sudan, Nicaragua and Indonesia. These are not just places on the map. They’re cultures I know little or next to nothing about. Luckily, there is no better cure for ignorance than reading.
So here is my #WITMonth Challenge, my way of joining in the fun. I’m looking forward to seeing more maps and suggestions for each category.

Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin translated by Patsy Southgate / Serpent’s Tail
The first time I’ve ever picked up a book based solely on the writer’s bio:
Albertine Sarrazin (1937-67) was a French-Algerian writer. At an early age she abandoned her studies and turned to a life of crime and prostitution. She wrote her first two novels in prison and died at twenty-nine.
…100% worth it. Best female anti-hero I’ve read in a long time.

Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner / Archipelago Books
Because Melanie Mauthner pitched this beautiful, engaging bildungsroman by an award-winning Rwandan writer and got rejected by eight different UK publishers. See what they missed out on.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky / Penguin Classics
My planned ambitious read for this #WITMonth is Alexievich’s oral history of the million women who marched into war with the Red Army: snipers, cooks, pilots, laundresses, anti-aircraft gunners, all unacknowledged their lifetime and censored when the book first appeared in 1985.
Because I know already it’s going to wreck me (see also: Second Hand Time, Voices of Chernobyl, etc.)

Family Room by Lily Yulianti Farid, translated by John H. McGlynn / Lontar
Because the only other translated piece of Indonesian literature I’ve ever read was one of the short stories in this collection (‘The Kitchen’) and I’ve wanted to read more ever since.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar, translated by Marjolijn de Jager / The University of Virginia Press
Because a friend borrowed it for me and recommended an Algerian classic from a fiercely political writer.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell / Atlantic Books
Because I read the US edition two years ago and I still think about it a lot. Globooks review here:
It’s still a punch to the gut.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa and Blake Feris / Pantheon Books
Because I can’t wait for my niece to grow just a little bit older so we can reread it together.

The End by Fernanda Torres, translated by Alison Entrekin / Simon & Schuster
Because I want to discover Brazilian writers not named Clarice Lispector. (Also, because it’s been impossible to find Angolan or Cape Verdean female writers in English in time for #WITMonth…)

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated by David Hackston / Arcadia Books
Because an ex-Yugoslav immigrant detective in Finland sounds like a fun start on my quest for more modern European stories.

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers by Anabel Hernández, translated by Iain Bruce and Lorna Scott Fox
Because Anabel Hernández, a winner of the Golden Pen of Freedom, lives under armed protection after exposing not just the drug cartels but also the politicians and businesspeople who enable them.

A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, translated by Christina Kramer / Two Line Press
“Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. […] Treated as freaks and outcasts–even by their own family–the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?”
I’m sold.

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Women In Translation Month August 2017

Panty By Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay is a Kolkata-based Bengali author, columnist and film critic with nine novels and over fifty short stories to her name. Any google search will spit out at least a dozen reoccurrences of the phrase: “credited with reintroducing hardcore sexuality to Bengali literature”. If you’ve already read Panty, you might be a little confused about what’s hardcore about it. I was. And then I read her account of the reception this discomfiting novella received in her own country back in 2006:

“I succumbed to a provocation in writing Panty, and it was undoubtedly a serious mistake. For this novel not only maligned me, it also played havoc with my son’s school-life and destroyed the reputation that my publisher Ananda Publishers had acquired over the years.

It made me face numerous questions, it brought me into disgrace. Nor was it particularly pleasant for Arunava, who translated the novel into English.”

I was far too used to rolling my eyes out at Fifty Shades of Grey and the huge disservice it has done to conversations on female sexuality and / or decent writing to even begin to imagine how Panty might be controversial. Bandyopadhyay’s frank account of the stigma of writing highbrow, not-particularly-hardcore erotica in India has opened my eyes. Author: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Female sexuality is only one aspect of Panty, but acknowledging it alone seems to have created a storm. Now that I think about it, there aren’t many Western novellas that start with the protagonist getting her period. (We seem to be still at the stage where “icky” girl bodily functions can’t even be mentioned in a novel’s title. See the recent re-branding for the UK market of Kopano Matlwa’s beautiful South African novel “Period Pain”).

Panty’s unnamed narrator finds herself in a bind when she checks into a dark, deserted Kolkata apartment and needs a change of underwear. She has travelled alone and with no baggage other than the emotional variety. She finds a leopard-print panty in the closet and puts it on, thus slipping into the life and desires of this woman who may or may not have been her current lover’s ex.

There are moments of intense voyeurism and fantasy, but not of the titillating variety. Instead, there is a complex blend of sexuality and women’s agency, social issues and meditations on a failed relationship – whether with her lover or her country or both.

The chapter numbers are scrambled, matching the feverish tone of the narration. The protagonist is alone and waiting for an unspecified procedure in the big empty apartment among the sprawl of Kolkata. She is haunted by the specter of a relationship with a man (inferred to be an affair). She watches a homeless family with young children who sleeps on the pavement in front of her high rise building. She becomes fascinated with their little girl. In a passage that resonated profoundly with me, she rides a bus full of religious men heading towards an unknown destination.

“The blood in her veins had been quickened by the fact that she was the sole representative of her faith on this bus—much more so than by her being the sole woman. Was her religion then a stronger and more primal factor than her womanhood?”

Some of the strands of the story worked better for me than others and, inevitable for any experience as personal as reading, your reading experience might differ greatly. However, it will not be difficult to agree on Arunava Sinha’s translation, which is consistent and engaging. Perhaps the most interesting item in my personal “This worked” column for this book is the concept of mōn in the novella’s intro as explained by Sinha. The language is fluid and tender, hitting all the right notes of Bandyopadhyay’s bold voice.

Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay. Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Published by Tilted Axis Press / 122 pages

Sofia Fara is an International Fiction Blogger and novelist.

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Panty By Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay