23 Aug / In Celebration of Women in Translation Month: Asian Women Authors — Part I [in The Booklist Reader]
This is the first of a two-part series. Part II will publish on Friday, August 30, 2019.
Before I can name even a single author or title, I must express my constantly regenerating, overflowing gratitude to translators who enable readers anywhere and everywhere to literally experience the world on the page. That global access grows exponentially more valuable as borders change and migrations multiply: reading, understanding, and sharing across populations, cultures, and nationalities is always a powerfully affecting antidote to combating stereotypes, myopia, xenophobia, racism – and so much more.
While Women in Translation Month is passing quickly, books from around the world keep publishing. Here you’ll find contemporary titles that originated in Asia and have arrived stateside thanks to the unflagging devotion of anglophone translators. Did I mention #grateful? Talk about global gifts!
Arid Dreams: Stories by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul
One of Thailand’s most prominent writers makes her collection debut with 13 resonating stories featuring the everyday lives of Thai citizens of diverse backgrounds, each confronting entrapment – physically, emotionally, and societally. In “The Attendant,” an elevator operator enclosed daily into a small moving box longs for the open farms of his youth, while two siblings in “Sandals” wish for their city life when they’re conscripted to work on a sugar plantation with their parents. In the titular “Arid Dreams,” a young man on island holiday becomes instantly obsessed with a local woman whose intimate services are available only to foreigners, while in “The Final Secret of Inmate Black Tiger,” a man on death row needs his last confession delivered to a prostitute he once knew. In “Wood Children,” an older man’s young wife carves the children she doesn’t have into wood, while in “Within These Walls,” a gravely injured politician’s wife imagines a life alone. Former NYC lawyer-turned-translator Poopoksakul provides overdue access to Pimwana’s award-winning fiction.
Bad Friends by Ancco and translated by Janet Hong
A decade has passed since high school, and Pearl is now a successful cartoonist; she’s established a healthy relationship with her parents and has reliable friends and colleagues. Looking back on her adolescence during the late 1990s, when Korea suffered serious financial crises, Pearl unblinkingly confesses the bad behavior – smoking, drinking, truancy, running away – she shared with her bad friends, especially her best friend, Jeong-ae. Making her English-language debut by way of award-winning Canadian translator Hong, Ancco – already an iconic voice for Korean youth – uncompromisingly exposes societal dysfunction and punitive exploitation, especially of young women, while acknowledging and memorializing the saving power (for some) of devoted friendship.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Despite having “a normal family,” Keiko “was a rather strange child” who learned quiet detachment to avoid further trouble. At 18, she’s “reborn as a convenience store worker” at a newly opened Smile Mart. Donning a uniform, learning the manual, and mimicking her coworkers enable Keiko to become “a normal cog in society.” Eighteen years later, she remains a top-performing employee. At 36, however, being a single woman in a dead-end job elicits worry and judgment from family and acquaintances. To deflect unwanted meddling, Keiko “adopts” an arrogant wastrel with both comical and bittersweet results. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize-winning Murata, herself a part-time “convenience store woman,” makes a dazzling English-language debut in a crisp translation by Takemori, rich in scathingly entertaining observations on identity, perspective, and the suffocating hypocrisy of “normal” society.
Frontier by Can Xue and translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
“It will be interesting what people make of this one,” novelist-essayist Porochista Khakpour reveals in her introduction. “Can Xue,” Khakpour explains, is both pseudonymous disguise and “synonymous with Chinese experimental literature.” Frontier is another enigma, moving readers into Pebble Town, a destination without geographical equivalent, anchored by the Construction Design Institute, a refuge for some, more labyrinth for others. Newly arrived José and Nancy soon give birth to a baby girl, dubbed “Daughter of the Frontier.” Liujin becomes the novel’s central character, and her interactions with townies – including janitor Qiming, hospital worker Haizai, and displaced African native Ying – loosely converge into a narrative about a morphing, reinventing community. Purists may find translators Gernant and Chen’s decision, albeit with the author’s permission, to anglicize some of the Chinese names disconcerting.
The Great Passage by Shion Miura and translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
At 27, Majime is recruited to help compile The Great Passage, an überdictionary destined to guide users across a vast sea of words. The socially awkward logophile embarks on an almost two-decade journey, during which he comes to understand the deepest meanings of friendship, dedication, and everlasting love. For English readers, this Japanese best-seller arrives stateside as a symbiotic accomplishment. Miura provides the whimsical original, while Carpenter creates an exceptional English rendering in what was surely a supremely challenging feat of translation, further magnified by the story’s exactness of every word. In decoding the Japanese – a language already complicated by the possibilities of multilayered wordplay – Carpenter had to meticulously balance between transcribing word-for-word and providing too much linguistic context and/or cultural description, which would have dampened the ineffable cleverness of the original. Swirling with witty enchantment, The Great Passage proves to be, well, utterly great.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim, and illustrated by Nomoco
At a mere 134 pages, Hen is perfect to read in a single sitting, although the story’s loving spirit is sure to linger. Confined to a tiny space all her life, Sprout decides one day that she’ll never lay another egg. She’s soon culled from her coop, but survives the “Hole of Death,” even escaping the murderous weasel. Despite her initial fear, Sprout is newly empowered on her own. Out in the “vast fields” in which she can roam free, “Sprout stood tall and proud, clucking joyfully.” Then her wildest dream comes true: she finds another animal’s still-warm egg, and she protects and nurtures it until Baby arrives to make her world wondrous and tragic, joyful and wrenching, and everything in between. Using simple sentences, Hwang creates a multilayered tale of the improbable connections that make up a family. An internationally best-selling translator, Kim enables anglophone audiences access to quite the sigh-inducing treat.
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar and translated by Sheila Dickie
Taguchi Hiro is a hikikomori, part of a growing phenomenon of self-made prisoners, usually confined to their parents’ home. After two isolated years, he’s venturing beyond his parents’ walls. His first interaction develops slowly with an older man who arrives to eat lunch at the same time, same bench, and same park as Taguchi the day he attempts to reenter society. Ohara Tetsu is a lifetime salaryman who, after 30-plus years in the workforce, has been replaced by younger versions of himself. Ashamed to have been discarded by a company to which he was loyal his entire adult life, he’s been unable to share his dismissal with his wife (who continues to rise at 6:00 a.m. to pack him delicious bento meals). The two men – Taguchi, who should be in the cusp of an exciting new life; Ohara, who should be enjoying the fruits of his long labors – recognize each other as kindred spirits. Originally published in German by Japanese Austrian Flašar, Necktie arrives stateside via Dickie’s smooth translation after winning the 2012 Austrian Alpha Literature Prize.
Our Happy Time by Gong Ji-young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Yunsu sits on death row, condemned for committing multiple murders. Yujeong lies in a hospital bed after her third suicide attempt. Yunsu confesses to a tragically difficult life in numbered “Blue Notes”; Yujeong reveals the meaninglessness of her overprivileged existence. On condition of her medical release – and to bypass further psychiatric treatment, which has failed her – Yujeong agrees to accompany her maternal Aunt Monica, a nun, on her weekly visits to death row inmates. And so the two souls – both so damaged beyond their youth – meet, share, understand, and slowly begin to heal through a story told in alternating chapters. Best-selling novelist Gong’s only readily available anglophoned title is ably translated by the award-winning Kim-Russell.
Penance by Kanae Minato and translated by Philip Gabriel
What Minato did with deadly milk cartons in her debut, Confessions, made quite the splash. She goes back to school in Penance (expertly rendered into English by lauded translator Gabriel), in which 10-year-old Emily is raped and murdered on school grounds. The four friends who find her corpse are expectedly traumatized. Three years later, any semblance of recovery is irreparably destroyed when Emily’s mother invites the quartet for tea and fancy cakes, only to threaten the girls: find Emily’s murderer before the 15-year-statute of limitations expires or risk revenge – “I’ll make you suffer far worse than Emily ever did.” Twelve years pass, the 15-year expiry looms, and the girls – now young women – reveal the horrifying penance they’ve each performed.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and translated by Chi-Young Kim
The Korean title of this indelible novel, Omma rul put’ak hae, contains a sense of commanding trust that is missing in its English translation: “I entrust Mommy [to you].” That trust is irreparably splintered when Mom disappears after becoming separated from her husband on a busy Seoul Station platform. Over the course of the novel, the character of Mom – a rural farmwoman whose “hands could nurture any life” – is depicted by four distinct voices: her eldest daughter, whose books Mom couldn’t read; her eldest son, for whom she could never do enough; her husband, who never slowed down; and finally, Mom herself, as she wanders through memories both strange and familiar. Shin’s breathtaking novel, hauntingly translated by Kim, is an acute reminder of how easily a family can fracture, how little we truly know one another, and how desperate need can sometimes overshadow even the deepest love.
The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell
Despite his name in the title, Nishino never gets a say – except when his words are filtered through the “ten loves,” who each narrate a chapter, who each provide glimpses into his character (or lack thereof), and who validate other lovers’ impressions and memories. Consensus proves Nishino to be a philandering womanizer, but he’s also woefully detached, serially lonely, and irreparably damaged. Ingeniously presented in chronological disarray – Nishino is in his forties in the opening chapter, then 14 in the next, 30, 25, etc., until he’s in his final fifties at book’s end – Kawakami’s latest is a sly sleight-of-hand that requires careful attention to the women’s voices in reassembling Nishino’s life. Translator Powell, who is responsible for five of Kawakami’s seven-thus-far Japanese-to-English imports, enables savvy readers another opportunity to admire Kawakami’s agile, inventive fiction.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated by Morgan Giles
“I did not live with intent, I only lived. But that’s all over now.” Kazu is dead, but his spirit can’t rest. As he wanders through Tokyo’s Imperial Gift Park, where he last lived as a homeless wanderer, memories, visions, and hauntings reveal his past. That his 1933 birth coincided with Emperor Akihito’s, followed by the birth of their respective sons on the same day in 1960, was supposed to be a “blessing,” but tragedy repeatedly marked the decades: “I had no luck,” Kazu unblinkingly insists. Driven by necessity rather than autonomy, Kazu worked as a laborer to provide for his family, resulting in years of isolation and separation. Then death came too early for his son, and too soon his wife. Difficulty and detachment continued to define his later years. Yu, an ethnic Korean in Japan, is no stranger to modern society’s traps driven by nationalism, capitalism, classism, sexism. Her anglophoned latest (gratitude to Giles for providing fluent accessibility) is a surreal fable of splintered families, disintegrating relationships, and the devaluation of humanity.
The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay and translated by Arunava Sinha
Not yet married a year, Homi and her husband are passionately in love. Beyond being a wife, Homi thrives at her high-power position at a television studio. The pair share a comfortable, compatible existence in Kolkata, occasionally interrupted by extended familial demands. And then Homi is confronted by a stranger with matted locks, who addresses her as “Empress,” who warns her that she’s little more than a victim of fate, because “there is no such thing as free will here.” The mysterious yogi seems to stalk her, appearing where he couldn’t possibly be. His pronouncements destroy any sense of agency as her marriage, her career, her very sanity begin to implode. Bandyopadhyay is considered one of India’s preeminent Bengali writers, and her latest arrives stateside having won a UK PEN Translates award, thanks to the prolific and award-winning Sinha, who remains Bandyopadhyay’s four-time translator of choice.