Whose stories are we paying attention to? If the statistics released by VIDA last week are any indication, it’s not a whole lot of female authors. And with the numbers of literary translation at below 3% in U.S, it’s not many international authors either. Perhaps that context has something to do with why these ten extraordinary writers from around the world are maddeningly underrated. I'm using the occasion of International Women's Day to celebrate the literary intersection.
This is a set of wildly different writers—some are at the beginning of their careers, others are broadly published, and still others are no longer alive. They have been much-published and translated, or not (yet). They write novels, stories, poems, and graphic novels. They are comic and dramatic artists, maximalists and minimalists, emotive and intellectual.
Wherever you stand in the conversation about translation and gender in the literary world, the point comes down to this: good books, and good writers, are often overlooked by those who just might fall in love with them. So let’s turn on a spotlight.
Marguerite Abouet (Côte d’Ivoire/France)
Aya grows on you. While at first the graphic novel seems overly frothy, the story soon settles into a bright, smart, and gently funny tale of Abidjan in 1978. Aya is the first book by Abouet, though it's quickly been followed up with Aya of Yop City and Aya: The Secrets Come Out (all collaborations with illustrator Clément Oubrerie and translated from French by Helge Dascher). (UPDATE: Aya: Life in Yop City will be released in July, 2012.) Abouet is explicit about how her inspiration for the stories of Aya came from a desire to reveal the ordinariness, gossip, romance, work, school, and domesticity of an African city that is otherwise overwhelmed by gloomy media representations (particularly, given the ongoing presidential standoff in Côte d’Ivoire, now). The result is decidedly unpretentious, utterly charming, and often striking. Want even more charm? See also the Bookslut interview with Abouet.
Alina Bronsky (Russia/Germany)
To read Broken Glass Park is to be immersed in the sharp-edged, hyper-intelligent world of seventeen-year-old Sascha, who, just months before the story opens, witnessed her mother’s murder. The vivid story plays out in 221 chapter-less pages narrated by Sascha’s fierce voice. Moments of humor carve out space for tenderness in the midst of a fraught tale of violence, class, and emotional stagnation. The first novel by Bronsky, Broken Glass Park was nominated for one of Europe’s most prestigious literary awards, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. Europa Editions, via translator Tim Mohr, released the English translation in 2010 (my review). Bronsky (who writes under a pseudonym) was born in Russia and moved to Germany when she was thirteen. Europa release Bronsky’s second novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (also translated by Mohr) last May. I loved it. So did a lot of other people: Publisher's Weekly named it one of the best books of 2011. And yet, for how good Bronsky is, she deserves far more acclaim and attention.
Slavenka Drakulić (Croatia/Sweden)
Adept at finding what is true in any story, Drakulić switches easily between nonfiction and fiction. Her honed intelligence is evident in work like Frida’s Bed, a concise novel (translated by Christina P. Zorić) that begins and ends with the beds of artist Frida Kahlo, switch-backing in point-of-view in an exploration of the intersection of chronic pain and artistry. Meanwhile, in A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism (published last year) eight animals narrate the rise and fall of Eastern European communism through a series of fables. Drakulić’s more straightforward accounting of her Eastern Europe’s transformation comes through Café Europa: Life After Communism—a beautifully clear collection of essays that spins on the region’s anger, apathy, and the desperate “me-too” spirit behind the proliferation of cafes with names like ‘Café Europa’ after the Iron Curtain fell. And in The Would Never Hurt a Fly, she examines war criminals who are being tried at The Hague, with particular focus on those at the helm of Yugoslavia's destruction. Gloria Steinem has called Drakulić "a writer and journalist whose voice belongs to the world." All the same, as a savvy and versatile writer, Drakulić’s renown is still nowhere near it deserves to be.
Jane Gardam (England)
In the last four decades, Jane Gardam has published nearly thirty acclaimed books. Her work has been shortlisted for the Orange and Booker prizes, and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award, among a host of other honors. And yet somehow, Gardam is weirdly little-known. Her most recent novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009), is constructed as a collection of vignettes that locates its center in the lives of post-war women living at the end of the British empire, when the expectations of the generations that raised them thunderously fell apart. This adds to a dizzying body of work that includes a story collection set in Jamaica (Black Faces, White Faces, 1975), a novel that turns on an adolescent narrator’s immersion in the books of Daniel Defoe (Crusoe's Daughter, 1985), and a one-sided epistolary tale that flirts with delusion (The Queen of the Tambourine, 1991). The Yorkshire-born author has also written children's books.
Billie Livingston (Canada)
While she is celebrated in Canada, Livingston’s work has yet to make a broad impact beyond her native borders. Greedy Little Eyes is her most recent book: a brooding, intimate collection of stories that is unafraid to face drama squarely. There is a restless mother who kidnaps her daughter’s friend and drives to Las Vegas, the victims of sexual abuse who exact horrific revenge, and the lonely music store employee who discovers her boyfriend’s secrets via Facebook. In all, these stories are haunted by people who feel they deserve better. Livingston, who now lives in Vancouver, is also a poet: her collection The Chick at the Back of the Church was nominated for a Pam Lowther award. Her next book, which will be released in July, is a novel called One Good Hustle, which is a story of the daughter of two con artists. Livingston's short story, "The Trouble with Marlene," looks to be headed toward a film adaptation.
Lori Ostlund (USA)
The Bigness of the World, Ostlund’s debut collection of eleven stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction, as well as a California Book Award. And it is an extraordinary book, the kind where you are most tempted to exhibit its virtues by reading aloud from it. Distracted by foreign spaces—whether they are manifested in global cities or in one’s own home—the men and women of Bigness hold tight to convention (especially grammar) while witnessing transformation. (Here's my full review of The Bigness of the World.) The peripatetic Ostlund, a Minnesota native who has lived all over the world, was recently a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is at work on a novel that is tentatively titled After the Parade. An excerpt of it was recently published in The Nashville Review.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia)
Petrushevskaya is unafraid of things turning sinister. In fact, her realistic fiction was considered ‘too dark’ by Soviet officials, who banned her work years ago. When she couldn’t get into print, she got her voice heard through theater stages. Nowadays, though, Petrushevskaya received Russia’s most prestigious prize, The Triumph, for lifetime achievement in 2002. And she’s still writing—though she’s turned her attention to twisted fairy tales. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers) is her latest collection to be published in English. Often centering Russian characters, her stories are troubled by nightmares and ghosts, the military draft and hunger, vodka and the dead. Reality bends in and out of irreality as the author explores all sides of fear. While Petrushevskaya calls the short story “one genre that is definitely tragic,” that isn’t her only temperature. She also writes plays, poems, children’s stories, and essays—sometimes even funny ones. See, for example, The Time: Night, about "a trite poet and disastrous parent living at the margin of a disintegrating Soviet culture."
Mercè Rodoreda (Catalonia)
It is not uncommon to call Rodoreda the greatest writer to come out of Catalonia. Rodoreda began to write fiction while living in exile after the Spanish Civil War; she’d been forced to flee because of her work as a writer for the autonomous Catalan government, and the Franco regime’s efforts to extinguish Catalan language and culture. The Time of the Doves (1962), centering a young shopkeeper in Barcelona during the civil war, is Rodoreda’s most acclaimed novel and has been translated into 33 languages. Open Letter Books published The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda last year, which collects thirty-one intense and sometimes macabre tales translated by Martha Tennent, and drawn from three of Rodoreda’s story collections, representing the author’s stylistic range and artistic transformations. See also Death in Spring, another Open Letter collaboration with Tennant, which National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward loves.
Fariba Vafi (Iran)
Wildly popular in her native Iran, My Bird (translated from Farsi by Mahnaz Kousha and Nasrin Jewell) is the only Fariba Vafi novel that is available in English—which is a crime. A slim book packed with emotive power, My Bird is narrated in series of graceful vignettes by a nameless thirty-five-year-old woman in modern-day Tehran. She is the reluctant mother of two small children, the wife of a man who fantasizes about moving to Canada (and has a habit of leaving her alone for stretches at a time), and daughter to a powerful mother who is appalled by her. As the narrator struggles to make her way through the complicated dynamics of power, powerlessness, and the perplexities of independence, My Bird presents an uncommon story of urban domestic life in Iran. The book’s fifty-three very short chapters present an elliptical but fully-realized portrait of how even absence is a presence. My Bird won the Yalda Iranian Literary Prize for best novel.
Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina)
Valenzuela is a fiercely questioning writer. She provokes response, both formally and in the rich content of her fiction and nonfiction—particularly when she skewers the social organization of dictatorships (as in Argentina in the 1970s). Valenzuela hones in on how the hyper-hierarchy of dictatorships mirror the patriarchal foundation of social relationships, romance, and sex. Not nearly enough of Valenzuela’s work is translated in English, but what is available includes He Who Searches (translated by Helen R. Lane), which centers a semiotics professor who moonlights as a Barcelona psychologist; in disguise, he visits a prostitute two mornings a week in order to (secretly) analyze her. Dark Desires and Others is what Valenzuela calls her “apocryphal autobiography” about her decade of living in New York City. And in Black Novel (with Argentines), translated by Toby Talbot, Valenzuela turns her inventive mind to the suspense novel, set among a community of Argentine exiles in New York City where death, madness, and artistry take a subversive shape.
- Dubravka Ugrešić (Croatia/Netherlands)
- Micere Githae Mugo (Kenya/Zimbabwe)
- Lila Azam Zanganeh (Iran/France/USA)
- Carla Speed McNeil (USA)
- Ingrid Winterbach (South Africa)
- Pascale Quiviger (Canada/England)
- Haifa Zangana (Iraq)
- Githa Hariharan (India/England)
- Grace Ogot (Kenya)
- Jessamyn West (USA)
- Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)
- Bessie Head (South Africa)
- Toni Cade Bambara (USA)
- Mavis Gallant (Canada/France)