It’s August, which means: Women in Translation Month! Head over to that link to learn more about Meytal Radzinski’s project to emphasize literature written by women and translated into English, a vastly underrepresented genre (books published in English translations by female authors account for less than 30% of translated literature every year).
There are also lots of events happening and opportunities to participate in different ways. Find all the details at the official project site or by following the #WITMonth hashtag and @readWIT account on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Also check your local bookstores and literary event spaces, as special events highlighting women writers in translation will be happening all month, as will book sales!
Within translated literature, nonfiction in translation is also a smaller genre, but I try to do my part there.
To kick off this month, I’ve got mini reviews of two recent WITMonth-relevant titles.
First is The Familia Grande, by Camille Kouchner, translated from French by Adriana Hunter. This impressionistic memoir details Camille’s childhood in a big, blended and very social family in Sanary-sur-Mer in southern France, gathered around her liberal and liberated unconventional mother. They were apparently a family of renown in France, including Camille’s influential physician father, although I can’t say I knew anything about them or understood who they were and why they’re significant after reading this.
The book opens with her mother’s death in 2017 as her five children return to bury her, and it’s a strong, poignant part of the text — actually the section I enjoyed most, because it’s beautifully written and I could feel Camille’s emotions so powerfully.
Her close-knit family is eventually joined by her stepfather, who molests Camille’s twin brother. Camille was a witness to this abuse in part, and much of the book’s latter portion addresses her feelings of guilt and shame, including guilt around whether she’s even allowed to tell this story that isn’t truly hers.
Upon its publication in France last year, it sparked a lot of controversy (perhaps unsurprisingly) as well as a national conversation about incest.
I thought this explored some very interesting ideas around who has the right to tell a story, and how witnessing abuse is also its own kind of trauma, but the style was hard for me to get into. It reads quickly but didn’t always make a lot of sense to me: it’s often unclear what’s going on, who/what she’s referring to, and when it happened.
Of course a lot of this is the filminess of memory, but it felt too scattered even considering. There was so much more I wanted to know just to have a basic understanding of this family. Perhaps some knowledge of their background would be helpful. I think a lot of others will be able to overlook this though, since the subject is so important, and the fact that this conversation is happening at all seems like a big step.
It does have several lovely lines though, and I think its social importance is very significant. This seemed to bring some very ugly and shameful topics to the forefront in France that needed confronted. It must have been very cathartic for her to write, too. And this is one of the things I love so much about nonfiction in translation: it gives the possibility of bringing topics that have sparked critical conversations in other countries to English-speaking readers.
published May 17, 2022 by Other Press. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
This past year has been my odyssey of reading Annie Ernaux. I find her memoirs so compelling — also filmy and even unclear at times, like the one just mentioned, in a way that demonstrates memory’s functioning and shortfalls over time.
But she’s such a unique and fascinating narrator of life, her own and the lives she observes. I would listen to any story that she wants to tell. Happening, originally published in 2000 with the English edition translated by Tanya Leslie rereleased in 2019 by Seven Stories Press, is my favorite Ernaux since The Years.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t be discussing it at a more relevant time: it’s an account of Ernaux’s illegal abortion in 1963 while she was a university student in Rouen.
It’s an extraordinary work of memoir. Both for the story she tells, the unique Annie Ernaux-way she tells it, and for the study of memory that she turns it into. It’s so affecting and haunting. Ernaux tries to abort herself using a knitting needle, unsuccessfully, and in her efforts towards obtaining the then-illegal procedure, she’s sexually harassed, terrified, isolated, suffers horrible physical pain and eventually becomes extremely ill following an infection.
It also says everything that needs to be said in this “debate”. I only wish there was more to it, but she does have a neat and tidy way of packaging her mini-memoirs concisely but still packing a massive emotional punch.
Among all the social and psychological reasons that may account for my past, of one I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.
She’s such an outstanding writer, sometimes I can’t even believe it. Much like how I can’t believe that we continue to debate women’s right to bodily autonomy today, that in 2022 in America it’s been made inaccessible to so many of us. It is a surreal, enraging time.
Used or new @ SecondSale.com
What’s on your reading list for Women in Translation Month? I’m compiling my list of relevant books from the past year, so more suggestions of nonfiction for this month (or anytime!) are coming very soon!
Always enjoy your reviews! Thanks for bringing these two to my attention. Will be adding them to my TBR!
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Oh thank you so much! I’m glad we share so many reading interests, I’ve gotten such great recommendations from you too ☺️ These are both very worthwhile – happy I could introduce you to them!
Goodness, two very important topics to discuss and it’s good they’ve been translated so they’re available to the wider Anglophone world. I am hoping to do one book for WIT but feel a bit behind in my reading at the moment even though I’m probably not and it’s early in the month!
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I’m so behind in my reading too, I don’t know what’s happened lately. I’m not sure if I’ll actually get to reading one this month either, but at least tried to help others out in that department 😂 I do hope you’ll get to one though!
Excellent reviews! The first book sounds traumatic, it reminds me of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn (based on the author’s own life) where as a child he is molested by his father, absolutely heartbreaking. Happening I found very moving, very upsetting, I felt so sorry for the young Ernaux trying to deal with her unwanted pregnancy all on her own, without any help or support, not being able to confide in her parents. France does seem to be having a moment where it brings some of this awful stuff into the light, there was that recent memoir by the woman who was abused by a well know author, with her own mother complicit in the abuse. I find it shocking that a lot less foreign writing by women is translated than that written by men…is that because in the first place men are more published or that male-authored work is considered to be of more interest to foreign audiences??? My brain aches…
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I felt the same about Happening, I openly wept through parts of it. I just hurt so badly for her, being alone as you said, and already in this terrifying precarious position and then being sexually propositioned and everything else on top of it. And here we go right back into this again. Horrifying.
I know what you mean, it’s definitely a moment of reckoning in France. It’s quite dark but seems necessary. I remember you and I discussed that memoir about the girl and the author, and actually I got the book reviewed here from its publisher at a library event and when she was describing it I thought it was THAT one at first. Did you read it? I haven’t but I may. There’s another great one in translation about a French woman bringing a pedophile to justice and how difficult the entire procedure was, The Little Girl on the Ice Floe. It’s gorgeously written but devastating, and fits into this reckoning with how far their spirit of sexual liberation and freedom can extend, I suppose…
I’m really not sure why it’s so little by women in translation, though I suspect you’ve got something with fewer female writers to pick from in general.
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You so such a good job picking up nonfiction by women in translation, especially given how few of these books are available and how little publicity they’re given. I’ll have to do a better job remembering the Women in Translation event next year, because it seems like a good impetus to pick these up 🙂
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This event has really helped me to be more aware of it and on the lookout for titles that fit! You make a good point that they receive very little publicity too, which is such a shame – instead they’re just kind of esoteric to the literary community. I hope you pick up something good for next year!!