On Small Presses & Translations + 2014: The Year of Reading Women in The Guardian

Following up on the big brouhaha over the “Global Novel” panel from the Jaipur Literature Festival I posted yesterday, The Guardian’s Books section (comfortably nested under the just-broad-enough Culture heading) has posted a couple more articles about trends in translation, independent publishing, and the need to read more women authors that is completely putting to shame our weak American literary coverage in the big newspapers and media outlets. These themes are vital to the health of English-language literary culture, and are all but completely ignored in the American press. The Guardian is a legit newspaper, and yet they’re still finding ways to cover books and changes in our literary culture, without throwing all their attention on “non-books” (a great term I picked up from Joe Milazzo at our lengthy coffee- & taco-fueled meeting today) spewed out by the corporate publishing conglomerates (barf).

From yesterday, “Small presses growing translated fiction’s readership“,  an article that counters Jhumpa Lahiri’s idea that nobody is putting any energy behind translation in English, rather it is primarily coming from smaller publishers who are completely ignored by most traditional book review outlets in the States. These smaller publishers are revolutionizing readership not only of translations, but focusing a lot of attention on the importance of building communities through books, through literature, through translations, through the coming together to celebrate the Written Word. This article interviews some of my favorite translation-heavy publishers, like my role model Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, the legendary Dalkey Archive (seriously, one of the best backlists of any publisher ever), Europa Editions (whose extensive Elena Ferrante list alone is worth its weight in gold) and Peirene Press (who consistently put out interesting, shorter works of translated brilliance), all of whom see building a vibrant literary community as a vital ingredient for their publishing endeavors to succeed:

Due to the healthy state of Anglophone writing, the UK is not an easy market for translation, but Matthew Reynolds, who chairs the Oxford-Weidenfeld translation prize, notes that the number of entries “has gone up from 90 or so a few years ago to 135,” and Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions is also optimistic that “British readership is opening up”.

Who is behind this shift? Interestingly, probably not the reader. Cailin Neal of Dalkey Archive says that “the influx of small presses and journals who publish works in translation is clearly visible, and bookshops and review editors are taking note”. Best European Fiction 2014 is itself a market creator, presenting stories from 28 European writers translated into what the launch’s convener, Rosie Goldsmith, calls the “European lingua franca of American English” with added contributions in British English, this year from Tom McCarthy for England and Robert Minhinnick for Wales.

Though their books are also sold in bookshops, both Peirene and And Other Stories operate on a subscription system, the support of loyal customers guaranteeing their ability to publish. This is not the Kickstarter-style deal used by UK publisher Unbound, in which each author’s work is put up for their readers’ approval and financial commitment before it is commissioned. Tobler and Ziervogel’s subscribers put their trust in the reputation each publishing house has developed for a carefully-selected, innovative list. Their readers also get rewards: both publishers run book groups, Peirene holds supper clubs, and their pop-up stalls appear all over the UK, reaching readers who, Ziervogel says, “haven’t been inside a bookshop for ages, sometimes for years. Many publishers,” she continues, “still believe that their main job is publishing books. I believe that my job as a publisher is to build a community of readers for my books and authors. My job is to build a brand that reader trust.”

And Other Stories goes one step further towards reader/publisher integration. A “grassroots social enterprise”, it organises groups of readers worldwide, who are “instrumental in unearthing a number of great books to publish … Thanks to your discussion online and in person,” says the publisher’s website, “new books will make it into English”.

This new internationalism is twinned with decentralisation, a move away from the world of London publishing. When Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize for a book Tobler published, many noted that this was the first nomination for a publisher based in High Wycombe. Ted Hodgkinson of the British Council says we are “increasingly aware, perhaps thanks to the internet, of being part of an international community of readers”. When I talked to Chad Post of Open Letter a few years ago, he pointed out that the internet has also ensured that readers of the 3% of US books published in translation the each year can access writing they might never find in their local bookshop.

Today’s Guardian posted an article, “‘Year of reading women’ declared for 2014“, that I’ve seen discussed on Twitter from many of the reviewers mentioned who have vowed to read only only women authors in 2014 (#readwomen2014), to counter the prevailing trends in publishing and literary criticism that heavily skewer towards the male (and the white, and the Anglophone, but those are arguments for another time). The cure? Read only women in 2014:

From a small American literary journal’s vow to dedicate a year’s coverage to women writers and writers of colour to author and artist Joanna Walsh’s burgeoning #readwomen2014 project, readers – and publishers – around the world are starting to take their own small steps to address male writers’ dominance in the literary universe.

Figures last year from Vida, the American organisation for women in the literary arts, show the huge imbalance in how male and female writers – and reviewers – are treated: at the New York Review of Books, for example, in 2012 16% of reviewers were women, with 22% of the books reviewed written by women. A similar investigation in the Guardian found that the UK is no better: in March 2013, 8.7% of books reviewed in the London Review of Books were by women, rising to 26.1% in the New Statesmen, and 34.1% in the Guardian.

This is a huge problem, and for all world literature, not only Anglophone literature (translation publishers take note of the following). I checked the 2013 Translation Database hosted by Three Percent, which records every original translation (i.e. no retranslations of classics, no re-releases) released in English that year from any publisher (and if you seen any missing, submit it and they will add it), and only 27% of the translations published in 2013 were by women. This problem is one of the main reasons that I will always strive to publish equal numbers of women and men authors in translation, it is the very least I can do to tilt the gender balance towards equanimity.

And a cool followup to the “2014: Year of Reading Women” idea comes to us from M. Lynx Qualey‘s ArabLit blog, the go-to resource for news, reviews, and gossip from the huge pan-Arabic literary world, “The Year of Reading (Arab) Women“. Qualey asks those participating in the “Year of Reading Women” not to whitewash their reading lists, and to make sure they add a diverse array of translations from outside of Europe, offering a list of works translated from the Arabic by women authors that you can add to your list of women to read this year, sorted by month!

Which women’s voices will this #readwomen2014 prioritize? Does it touch on any of the reasons why we gravitate toward male protagonists? Will it be, in the main, a celebration of English-language women’s voices? Of women at the center or the peripheries?

But despite my reservations, there’s a good enough chance that I’m wrong — in my lukewarmness — so if you’re keen to play along, this is a list of twelve suggestions of Arabic-writing women. Bonus points where the translator is also a woman. So here it is, one for every month of the year:

January: Hanan al-Shaykh, Story of Zahra, trans Peter Ford. You just cannot go wrong with Story of Zahra, which is also one of the five books on my “how to get started with Arabic literature” list.

February: Adania Shibli, Touch, trans. Paula Haydar. Or, if you prefer, We Are All Equally Far from Love, trans. Paul Starkey. Shibli is for those of you who are literarily-minded, who enjoy a woman’s narrative that lives outside traditional Western story-building. With its surprising poetic imagery, Touch could just as easily be classed as a collection of prose poems.

March: Samar Yazbek, Woman in the Crossfiretrans Max Weiss. Raw, honest, terrifying, hopeful portrait of the first few months of uprising in Syria by one of its leading novelists.

April: Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters, trans. Marilyn Booth. It’s true, Barakat is big on the male protagonist, but with an amazing empathy and sensitivity both to characters and to objects of daily life.

May: Sahar KhalifehOf Noble Originstrans. Aida Bamia. Winner of the prestigious Mohamed Zafzaf prize, Khalifeh is a strong and prolific author with many novels in English translation. My suggestion is her most recent, in particular because it shows an important historic moment from a woman’s point of view.

June: Alexandra Chrietieh, Always Coca-Cola, trans. Michelle Hartman. This book is very much a piece of women’s writing, centered more on the contradictions of daily life than in rising and falling action. It’s also very funny.

July: Iman Humaydan Younes, Wild Mulberries, trans. Michelle Hartman. There’s also another book of Younes’s coming out this year, trans. Hartman, Other Lives. 

August: Radwa Ashour, Woman of Tantoura. I would like to recommend Radwa Ashour’s Farag (which is supposed to be out as Blue Lorries in May), trans. Barbara Romaine, but BQFP has been sliding on deadlines lately. But whenever it’s out, do get it. Ashour’s Spectres is also a wonderful metafictional view of women’s lives.

September: Najwa BarakatSalaam!, trans. Luke Leafgren. This difficult and powerful novel finally brings an important Lebanese author into English.

October: Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love,  Khaled Mattawa. I would like to recommend Mersal’s Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses, but alas it’s not yet in English. Poems from Oranges here.

November: Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights, trans. Samah Selim. All of al-Tahawy’s books deal with women’s lives (this one in New York and Egypt), but this one is additionally translated by an award-winning (woman) translator.

December: Betool Khedairi, Absent, trans.  Muhayman Jamil. I once had a torrid love affair with this book, which takes us from a vibrant and beautiful mosaic of Baghdad and moves toward the present.

After a quick perusal of this awesome list, I noticed the Dallas Public Library (<3) has both a physical and digital copy of Betool Khedairi’s Absent for checkout (well, now one is checked out, suckas), and that’s the book description that struck me the most. I always try to take up people’s recommendations for books that they had “torrid love affairs” with. I love that kind of passion in reading.

Thank you Guardian, thank you M. Lynx. Get to reading translations of women, y’all.

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