#WITMonth is coming – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers which has grown from strength to strength – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my relatively recent favourites.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of an ill-fated love affair between and young girl and an older married man – a novella in which feelings are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, the novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of Berlin. Keun’s protagonist, Doris, is a striking young woman with a highly distinctive narrative voice – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. It’s a wonderfully evocative book; think Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin crossed with the early novellas of Jean Rhys. Recently reissued by Penguin in a beautiful new edition.

Winter in Sokcho By Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Anessa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

Childhood, Youth and Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman)

Viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a remarkable work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist. Probably the best books in translation I read last year.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Recently translated into English by Ogawa’s regular translator, this thoughtful, meditative novel explores themes of memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear. The story is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are just some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders. A very poignant read, especially in the current time when so many of the things we used to take for granted still seem somewhat fragile or inaccessible.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

A beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style. Morante’s portrayal of young Arturo’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. Highly recommended for book groups and individual readers alike.

You can find some of my other favourites in a previous WIT Month recommendations post from 2017, including books by Teffi, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Vicki Baum and Anna Seghers.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

47 thoughts on “#WITMonth is coming – some recommendations of books by women in translation

  1. Liz

    Another great set of recommendations, Jacqui, thank you! I already have The Memory Police on my list, plus far too many others to get through in a month. But there’s always room for more possibilities – I love the sound of Territory of Light in particular, although they all sound great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool. Even though The Memory Police was originally published in Japan in the mid ’90s, it feels very much a novel for ‘now’ when memories and nostalgia seem to have taken on a particular significance. I hope you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This is such an interesting list of books. I look forward to reading everyone’s upcoming posts.

    Your mention of The Artificial Silk Girl reminds me that I want to read more of Keun.

    Reply
  3. Lory

    Having recently read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I’d be especially interested in The Artificial Silk Girl. So great to see all these wonderful titles out there.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There seems to be more choice than ever this year, which is definitely a good thing. The Keun is a darker novel than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – more penetrating in its portrait of the realities of life for a young woman. I’ll be interested to see what you think if you do decide to read it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s a book that would prompt quite a bit of discussion. How culpable is Vibeke for what happens to Jon? Is she deliberately neglectful or just preoccupied and careless? And the ambiguity of the ending makes her actions (or lack of them) feel all the more heartbreaking…

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Thanks for the list, which contains some very interesting suggestions. I’m only starting to dip into translated literature and am having a great time discovering how rich it is. Although I’ve read several (favorable) reviews of Ogawa’s Memory Police, the other novels are unknown to me so I’m particularly grateful for the recommendations. Like you, I’ve had a copy of Keun’s Child of All Nations for quite some time; it looks great and I can’t understand why I haven’t read it yet. I’m definitely interested in her Artificial Silk Girl and, since it’s hard for me to resist anything described as dreamlike and atmospheric, Territory of Light as well. Right now I’ve almost finished María Gainza’s Optic Nerve (tr. Thomas Bunstead), an utterly engrossing, wonderful read particularly if you’re interested in painting (it’s a sort-of auto fiction in which Gainza interspaces episodes of “her life” with discussions of various paintings).

    Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    A really lovely selection of WIT books, Jacqui, some of which I’ve read. I own, as you know, the Copenhagen trilogy and would really love to get to this during August – we shall see how it goes. So far I have one book lined up, a Tatyana Tolstaya – and plenty of other contenders!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very keen to hear more about the Tolstaya, so I shall keep an eye out for your post on that. The Ditlevsen trilogy is excellent, but quite intense (Dependency, especially), so you might need something light on hand as a follow-on read. A nice Golden Age mystery from the British Library Crime Classics would do the trick. :)

      Reply
  6. Jane

    What a wonderful collection, all new to me. The Copenhagen Trilogy and Territory of Light stand out at first sight – I’m slightly worried about my TBR!

    Reply
  7. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A lovely list of tempting novels and novellas, the only one I’ve read is The Memory Police which I enjoyed, though my favourite from the MBI shortlist was The Adventures of China Iron, a surprisingly enjoyable and funny, subversive read!

    Last year I really enjoyed Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira (Brazil) which was a unique and entertaining potted history of Brazil through a line of daughters.

    This year I’m most looking forward to Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara, which looks like a real gem!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      China Iron is from Charco, right? Oddly enough, I’ve yet to read any of their releases even though they sound right up my street – independent press, fiction from Latin America, plenty of women writers to choose from etc. etc. I’ll have to take a closer look at their list. Stories of the Sahara is completely new to me; the title alone makes it sound very evocative.

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Yes, I had a subscription and a number of their books were piling up and due to the nomination I read China Iron after already having read The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, but China Iron was my favourite. I was enthralled, educated and humored by and it has a few literary references that of course I diverged off to check out and even read one of them (the naturist WH Hudson’s boyhood memoir Far Away and Long Ago).
        China Iron is a subversive, feminist take on an old gaucho prose poem, from the perspective of his wife, who in the original text only gets a couple of lines.
        It’s brilliant, I hope it wins! I think you’ll enjoy it too and it’s a good way in for those new to translated fiction, perhaps looking for a literary adventure they’re unlikely to forget.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          We’ll have to see when the winner is announced at the end of August! It seems to be a very strong shortlist this year. I keep seeing raves about Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, another novel that would fit the bill for WIT Month

          Reply
  8. Liz Dexter

    These all look great! Handily, I have only one book by a woman in translation on my TBR – “There’s a good girl” by Marianne Grabrucker, which is a memoir about trying to raise her daughter in a non-gender-specific way, and I was intending to read it in August for 20 Books of Summer and All Virago / All August (as it’s a Women’s Press book, therefore Counts) so I can fit it into THREE challenges now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very clever planning on your part, Liz. Even though the Grabrucker may have been written several years ago, the topic sounds very ‘now’. It should be an interesting one to read in 2020…

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    I am hoping to do a similar post later in the week, with some potential #Witmonth reads and some recommendations. I loved Love by Hanne Orstavik, such a beautifully memorable novel. I have read the first two books in the Copenhagen trilogy, and must get the third. I have the paperback of The Memory Police on pre-order and looking forward to it. I do love the sound of A Certain Smile too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I shall keep an eye out for your post. The last part of the Ditlevsen trilogy is excellent – very intense, but well worth the emotional investment, I think. There’s a new Penguin edition of the full trilogy coming in November, so hopefully that will give it another boost. I think you’ll like The Memory Police, too. The meditative style feels like a great fit for a such a thought-provoking book.

      Reply
  10. J. C. Greenway

    You’re so bad (good) for my tbr list – I want to read all of these! But I have a couple of Olga Tokarczuk’s books that I’m very much looking forward to, and Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami too, so that should keep me going.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I must try Tokarczuk – Drive Your Plow really appeals to me, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for it. The Kawakami sounds excellent too – I shall keep a lookout for your review.

      Reply
  11. elisabethm

    Some great suggestions there! I have read and enjoyed ‘A Certain Smile’ by Françoise Sagan, and also ,Bonjour Tristesse’. I would definitely be interested to read some modern French female authors. I’m currently reading and loving ‘Sculptor’s Daughter’ by the Finnish author Tove Jansson and can highly recommend her fiction. I also warmly recommend Lyumila Ulitskaya, Tatyana Tolstaya, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Guzel Yakhina.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a really interesting selection of recommendations, thank you. I recall seeing some great reviews of Petrushevskaya’s novellas ij the past, so I’m going to follow up on her. Many thanks!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. I think you’d like Territory of Light very much. There are some beautiful images in it – coloured paper squares being dropped onto a roof, almost like a mosaic when viewed from above.

      Reply
  12. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I second Territory of Light – superb! I’m very keen to explore the Ditlevsen trio, but don’t have copies – yet! I haven’t decided which books I’ll read for #WITmonth yet – must get looking.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve just read another of Tsushima’s books — Child of Fortune — and while I didn’t love it as much as Territory of Light, I think it will stay with me for quite a while…

      As for the Ditlevsens, Penguin will be bringing out a combined volume of the trilogy later this year (November, I think), so you might want to hold off till then!

      Reply
  13. buriedinprint

    What a useful list for those who are scrambling to assemble a stack for this event! (I’m not, as I’ve got too many other reading projects underway in this moment, but it’s always wonderful to see my reader flood with #WIT recommendations during the month of August.)

    Reply
  14. Pingback: Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Pingback: Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck) | JacquiWine's Journal

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