Reading for #WomenInTranslation Month

What a fine author with whom to launch Women in Translation month (hosted by Biblibio) one of the few contemporary authors whose work I have followed from the beginning in Sheila Fischman’s translations: Ru (2009; 2012) and Mãn (2013; 2014).

Themes from both of her previous novels resurface in Vi, and yet the work feels distinct because readers accompany Vi through a number of changing circumstances, from Saigon to Montreal, from Suzhou to Boston, and through the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Her emotional attachments change dramatically as well, as she and her mother and siblings (three brothers, she is the youngest and only girl) escape Vietnam during the war while her father remains behind. In the years to come, as she grows and explores her own needs and desires (which frequently conflict with the choices her ancestors would need/desire her to make), readers observe her heart expanding and contracting through devotion and loss.

Expectations of women are core to the story from the beginning, first in the character of Hà.

“As much as Hà had proudly displayed her painted eyelids before her marriage to the general, so, from the start of her new relationship, she hid her black eyes under the wide brim of a hat. I had the impression that she was becoming smaller and smaller, not only because of her flat plastic slippers that scraped the ground, but also because of the absence of her boisterous laughter. She climbed the steps like a shadow, to blend in properly with the silence that prevailed all across the country.”

And, in every respect, ideas about limitation and freedom are explored. There is no distinction between the personal and the political, no distinction between lingering and recurring losses.

“How to suddenly lose the permanent presence of my father? How to find one’s way before an endless horizon, with no barbed wire, no overseers?”

Throughout, there is a continued focus on language, which readers will recognize from her earlier works. It is impossible to separate the language from the story, the truths from the act of questioning.

“To my great surprise, the character for the number one, a single horizontal stroke, was considered the most important , because it illustrated the primordial unity, the fusion between sky and earth, the horizon, the beginning of the beginning. Each character told its own story, and when it was combined with one, two, or three others, new stories formed, transforming the initial meaning.”

All of this talk of characters is, in that moment, very clearly about language and capturing meaning in symbols. But of course, readers take a step back and see the commentary about the characters in Vi as well, and the different aspects of Vi’s self within, too.

“He often told me that it was not my buttons done up to the neck and at the wrists that would protect me, but the strength I would draw on to disengage myself.”

That may be true, but it is also true that Kim Thúy draws upon her strength to engage herself and readers in narratives which pose difficult questions about belonging and home, delicately and deliberately, so that this simple act of engagement creates a space for each of us to inhabit on the page.

What work by a woman have you recently read in translation?

EDITED TO ADD:

This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill.

On October 1st, five other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety. (Naomi’s review of this novel is here.)

Vi also counts towards the 12th Canadian Book Challenge, which runs from July 2018 to June 2019, hosted by Melwyk at the Indextrious Reader.

2018-11-05T19:04:55+00:00

14 Comments

  1. Naomi August 19, 2018 at 1:07 pm - Reply

    I hadn’t thought before about the fact that I, too, am up to date with this author so far. It seems a rare thing for me. But maybe I just haven’t thought about it before. Another reason to make a list!

    I was struck by how similar her writing was for her first two books, yet they tell very different stories. I’m guessing this one follows the same pattern?

    I have Leroux’s Madame Victoria! I’m excited to get to it. Do you think you’ll have your hands on it any time soon??

    • Buried In Print August 21, 2018 at 11:10 am - Reply

      Feel free to take lists of books from my MustReadEverything pages if there is any overlap in our favourites, but I understand how starting that kind of project by actually making the list can feel a little overwhelming. I rarely add an author to the list now, even though I still sometimes do read everything, as in this instance.

      And, yes, that’s exactly it. Like layers in pastry. Another similarity is that even though each seems like the kind of book you can read in a single sitting, I find just a few pages to be satisfying – rich and thoughtful.

      There is a copy in French in the library, but I have a feeling that her kind of writing and my kind of French-reading are not a good match (I’m good with middle-grade stories and graphic novels – hehehe). It’s definitely one of the books I’m most looking forward to for this season though!

  2. The Reading Life August 6, 2018 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Last month I read for short stories translated from Yiddish, by Blume Lempel who wrote stories set in Paris where she lived from 1929 1939 when she wisely moved to NYC. One of the stories has the intriguing title “A Yiddish Poet in Paris”

    • Buried In Print August 8, 2018 at 11:36 am - Reply

      I’m trying to wedge some other short stories into my stack again, along with Gallant, but once I’m reading Gallant, I find it hard to read others (whereas I didn’t feel that with Munro’s stories). I will look for Blume Lempel and, yes, how fortunate she relocated to NYC at that time!

  3. Melwyk August 4, 2018 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    I liked this one but found I preferred her earlier work. But I do love Sheila Fischman as a translator!

    I’m also celebrating WIT Month & have a lot of great titles to talk about. I’ve just finished Disoriental by Negar Djavadi & LOVED it. Working on a review of it so I can share my thoughts. Also have Flights in the tbr – so so many great reads to explore!

    • Buried In Print August 8, 2018 at 11:27 am - Reply

      That does sound like a good one; I’ve added it to my TBR (but probably won’t get to it this month). And, yes, Fischman is pretty amazing. I’m going to read another of hers this month, too, I think. crosses fingers

  4. Liz Dexter August 2, 2018 at 7:04 am - Reply

    This sounds powerful indeed. I’m being my usual rubbish self where WIT month comes in, nary a one in the TBR as far as I can tell!

    • Buried In Print August 3, 2018 at 9:58 am - Reply

      I’ve always missed this one in the past, but Ali posted her stack early and I had a couple in mind, so it’s working out for a change. (Murdoch is still in my stack for this month too!)

  5. A Life in Books August 2, 2018 at 6:28 am - Reply

    It was that focus on language that made me love Mãn so much. The quotes you’ve pulled out are so elegantly expressed.

    • Buried In Print August 3, 2018 at 9:57 am - Reply

      Elegance: that’s perfect. I kept thinking ‘sophisticated’ but that wasn’t quite right. Thank you.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings August 2, 2018 at 4:03 am - Reply

    Sounds like a very powerful work indeed. I’ve recently finished Flights by Olga Tokarczuk and it’s just wonderful.

    • Buried In Print August 3, 2018 at 9:42 am - Reply

      It sounds amazing; I’ve added it to my TBR, thank you, it sounds like just my cuppa.

    • lauratfrey August 3, 2018 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      Loved Flights! You know, I read Man and didn’t get all the fuss. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood? Gearing up a post for #WIT myself, stay tuned…

      • Buried In Print August 8, 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

        I can completely understand how one could pick up her work in an impress-me kinda mood and be nonplussed by her style; but in the right mood, it’s simple grace (plus, I do have a thing for restaurant stories).

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