Women in Translation Month

Hi Everyone

Today I’m sharing with you the books I’ve picked to read for Women in Translation Month this August, and I have some recommendations for anyone unsure what to read.

You can watch the below video or read for more info further below.

  1. Solo Dance by Li Kotomi Translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris

The author Li Kotomi is a Taiwanese-born fiction writer, translator and essayist who writes in Mandarin and Japanese. This novel debuted in the original Japanese as Hitorimai received the 60th Gunzo New Writers’ Award for Excellence in 2017. 

Like the author the protagonist in Solo Dance, Cho Norie, grew up in Taiwan and left for Tokyo to pursue a master’s degree, learn the language, and get a job.

The story follows Norie and examines her depression, trauma and obsession with death. While her colleagues worry about the economy, life insurance policies, marriage and children, Norie has the added stress of keeping her sexuality hidden. 

It sounds like a fascinating coming-of-age story about a gay person in Taiwan and corporate Japan. I recently read and reviewed Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin and translated by Jamie Chang from the Korean. I’m interested to see whether there are any overlaps in experience between the protagonist in Solo Dance and the daughter of the protagonist in Concerning My Daughter. 

  1. Aya Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet

Set in Ivory Coast, 1978. This is described as being a golden time for the country, a time when it is an oasis of affluence and stability in West Africa. The story follows studious and clear-sighted 19-year old Aya, her easy-going friends Adjoua and Bintou, and their meddling relatives and neighbours. Aya is loosely based on the author, Marguerite Abouet’s, youth in Yop City. 

A wry, breezy account of the simple pleasures and private troubles of everyday life in Yop City. The illustrator’s warm colours and energetic, playful lines connect expressively with the vibrant narrative. 

  1. Elena Knows by Claudia Pinheiro translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle

 I’ve heard so much about this book through booktube and am looking forward to my buddyread with Ros at Scallydandling about the books. 

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize

After Rita is found dead in a church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit. Chronicling a difficult journey across the city’s suburbs, an old debt and a revealing conversation, the book is said to unravel the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

  1. Violets by Kyung Sook Shin translated from the Korean by Anton Hur

Set in South Korea, 1970. 

San is a lonely child, ostracised by her community. She soon finds a friend in a girl called Namae, until one afternoon changes everything. Following a moment of intimacy in a minari field, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path.

We next meet San, aged 22, when she happens upon a job at a flower shop in Seoul’s bustling city centre. Throughout one hazy, volatile summer, San is introduced to a curious cast of characters—the mute shop owner, a brash co-worker, kind farmers and aggressive customers. Fuelled by a quiet desperation to jump-start her life, she plunges headfirst into an obsession. Throughout it all, San’s moment with Namae continues to linger in the back of her mind.

Those are my picks! And it’s been an interesting thing choosing the books because when I looked at books from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, I realised that they didn’t qualify for women in translation because the books were written in English, and that makes me look forward to a book that I pre-ordered and should be arriving in the post any day now. It is called 

Decolonising Translation, and it focuses on the recent and growing conversations re-evaluating the way literature is written, published and read in the Anglophone world, pushing for a dismantling of the idea of a Western canon, and questioning the dominance of English-language writing in representing places and communities. Where do we go from here, and what are the implications for literary translation? Can we cast a critical eye over what is and isn’t considered literature, what is translated into which language and why, how translation is carried out, by whom and for whom?

If you’ve already picked your reads do let me know what you’ve gone with, and in case you’re struggling to decide  what to read for for Women in Translation month, I’d recommend any of the following books by Korean authors:

  1. Han Kang’s The White Book for people wanting something unusual and experimental without necessarily being surreal. The White Book blends fiction, memoir and poetry to reflect on life. Our narrator is feeling the heavy weight of living life not just for herself but for the deceased elder sister, that never made it beyond infancy. White symbolises so many different things, and the colour is used to tie together various themes. I took my time reading this, and between featuring it on my Early April Vlog and completing the book, I noticed a few other booktubers had done some fabulous deep-dives, so I’ve never reviewed it on my channel. If you want to watch a full review before or after you read it, then I recommend checking out Brandon’s Bookshelf and his review from May; I’ve linked his channel below. Also, look out for a summary and analysis by the Codex Cantina coming out in August as part of their focus on Women in Tranlation.
  2. Lemon by Kwon Yeo Sun I think this is an under rated novel which is a slice of life novel dabbling with the murder mystery genre and I highlighted it in s short video I did last year November and since then I’ve seen it get full deep dives so I can’t be the only one who thought this book deserved better than to fly under the radar

I think it would be rated more highly if people didn’t go into it expecting a full on murder mystery, because that’s only part of what this story is. The main focus makes it more a slice of life novel with a twist that involves the murder that ties together the characters in this book . 

It’s not about the perpetrator; it’s a deep dive into three people’s relationship with the victim. You’ve got her best friend, her sister, and a classmate, and the voices are really distinctive, and so while I usually like just one narrator, I didn’t mind that it was split into three. I saw someone pondering why it’s called lemon. Per the cover, the person who died was wearing a lemon yellow dress. Still, despite this novella, it’s so packed with details that I’m not surprised that some things might slip a reader’s observation. 

The colour yellow features often and in a way I found poetic way enough to capture my attention. So we may go from social commentary about Korean obsession with beauty and plastic surgery, or the injustice that exists in the large class divide and then we go to an everyday occurrence that nonetheless draws our attention to featured motifs and yellow:

 I turned off the stove and placed the eggs in cold water. Since I couldn’t tap the egg to break the shell, I peeled it by rolling it gently on the table. The late afternoon sun that spilled in through the living room window revealed a layer of dust on the table. I took a bite, and tasted the soft white and jammy yolk. I glanced down. The yolk glistened in the light. I couldn’t help thinking how lovely it looked.

3. Shoko’s Smile

Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung is translated by Sung Ryu. The novel gets its title from the first of the seven stories in this collection. I read this early in the year and 4 of the 7 stories are still fresh in my mind; I found all the stories easy to relate to and subtle yet impactful. 

While the stories are short, their scope is grand enough to imagine it playing out as a complete novel or even an entire film. Everything, from Japan’s three-decade occupation of Korea to the consequences of the Vietnam war, is considered but never in a way that pulls the reader out of the central characters’ stories. The story, the setting, and the internal monologues all provide the reader with a greater insight into who the characters are.

I loved the realism, and appreciated that the stories didn’t steer away from being serious. The stories are emotional, painful and complex, and there are many things that come into play – to varying degrees – in our own lives. Issues like mental health, politics, violence, ill health, ageing, sexuality, discrimination, privilege and trauma.

4. Cursed Bunny 

Bora Chung’s collection is genre defying and moves from body horror, to sci-fi, to the supernatural and oddly this blend is perfect.I don’t think I’d have wanted a full collection of body horror and I appreciated the variety.

Each of these ten stories, while so different and in some instances being not only surreal but also absurd, get the reader to think about issues like capitalism, societal expectations, ageing, morality and more. In some cases you think less and just sit back and enjoy the words that flow around you to create a strange dreamlike landscape bordering on the real and the nightmarish. 

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