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A Year in Reading: Sophia Shalmiyev


What do you read, what do you have the time and energy to read, the year your first book comes out and you slowly crawl back to the drawing board to write the second, drip by unsteady lead pipe drip? 2019 was a cruel and exciting time to crisscross the country to engage with other writers and promote your strange feminist immigrant memoir (and read from it more times than you thought you ever could or should). There were many incredible books I could not get to this year, but here are some of the ones I devoured on my way to and from PDX airport. In honor of underdogs everywhere I am going to cover books from small presses or ones that flew below the radar and leave the heavy hitters for the feel-like-dog-shit end of the year winners lists.

Let us begin at the natural home of all the white-men-are-garbage controversies and go right to the crotch area. Caren Beilin’s Blackfishing the IUD completely knocked me out and illuminated so much about the plight of women’s health, copper toxicity, gaslighting, and the need for more research on birth control. I was in the hands of a writer so well-read, so prepared, and so capable, all while suffering the loss of her own health, that I kept wanting to scream out, Why the hell isn’t this on the news, in the streets, blowing up? Well, it’s about what we little sneaks hide up there in our uterus/machines, so it’s yucky and private. Or totally none of anyone’s concern or interest. Unlike abortion. It wasn’t that long ago that women were advised to douse their “dirty” vaginas in Lysol or douche out a man’s ejaculate rather than allow the withdrawal method to inconvenience his pleasure. Beilin is tapping us on the shoulder with a copper fist to pay attention to the sick woman with a coil inside. She is not your grandma’s ghost; you barely have any reproductive rights or advances in not being the butt of a cosmic joke—one where you have to experience minor side-effects, like no longer wanting sex, crying uncontrollably, experiencing chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and possible risk of death in order to bone Larry (we forgot oral sex exists), Gary (we forgot paying your bills is a thing), or Josh (we forgot to break up).

My hit parade of angry, annoyed, hungry, and tired masses of women stacked up to the ceiling this year. Good thing that protective glass was there to cap my voracious appetite for knowledge coming from anyone other than mediocre dudes. Speaking of not having any of it, in The Not Wives, Carley Moore created a nuanced character us single mothers who exist hand-to-mouth, whether in blue-collar or academic purgatories, have needed for some time now. This is the modern Cookie Mueller without massive amounts of drugs, and I can stand to read a thousand more variations on this theme, please and thank you.

I read Moore alongside the new edition of Judith Arcana’s literary biography of another scrappy urban badass, Grace Paley’s Life Stories, a vital and thorough exploration of one of the greatest writers and activists of our time. Turns out I am mildly shallow because the whole time I was just waiting for the juicy old romance/new romance tidbits and drama. Paley loves and likes men a whole lot, and she is a master at showing what that love does to a woman. In the end, I learned that your kids are going to quit high school and temporarily hate your guts even if you are indeed actually Grace fucking Paley (who is the inspiration for my current protagonist in the making and I would chop off both my pinky toes to snort her ashes).  

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is as pure as the driven glow stick juice and she perfectly channels the—Hey kids, get another decade to imitate cuz ya can’t—’90s club scene in Sketchtasy, and this girl is both fast and a fast girl, so it’s a BoGo. Keep your eye on this prize because Sycamore is churning out a few more projects you won’t wanna miss. She knows that nostalgia parties are funerals and to hear her read or talk is to live.

Lilly Dancyger brought us the right anthology for these bleak times with Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger. The voices range in pitch, background, geography, and best practices for expressing rage, but they all manage to deal with the body, shame, and violence in an intersectional and intentional way that reminds me of the groundbreaking sister companion texts Angry Women and Angry Women in Rock, edited by Andrea Juno and V. Vale. I wouldn’t have survived high school or college without Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, Kathy Acker, Lydia Lunch, Kathleen Hanna, or bell hooks, and am so grateful for visionary editors who can forge these feminist cauldrons for future generations.

Just because I would never actually drink Drano with corn nuts doesn’t mean I am not capable of ingesting the equivalent of the blue crunchy stuff as my reading experience. I died and died smashing my face on the coffee table, I mean, reading The Incest Diary, written by Anonymous, but managed to finish Christine Angot’s narcotic and jangly Incest, before the rigor mortis set in. Someone asked me why I would seek out such material, in a condescending Heathers lunch-time poll style, projecting something sinister onto what is seen as victim literature, or dirty stuff to avoid. I have zero “fascination” with this subject, per se, and while it is the hardest topic in the books-containing-rape category, here’s the deal—these are astonishing works of art. You will glimpse the most private of wars where these characters got their wounds sutured in a way far more relevant than Hemingway’s cock-wagging battlefield sagas. This reminds me to dole out my annual PSA: read Martha Gellhorn, repeat often.

The author of Nine and a Half Weeks may indeed have been a Nazi sympathizer, but I don’t have the proper credentials to make this bold claim since I only lasted in Hebrew school for two years. You will have to read Ghost Waltz and decide for yourself. This yeshiva-attending bookworm was absolutely hooked on Elizabeth McNeill’s story from the first scene to the very last word. I went ahead and pulled a…”but Woody Allen made Annie Hall pass” and compartmentalized the real narrator, Ingeborg Day (anti-Semite?), who lost her job at Ms. magazine of all places because she was in the loony bin recovering from her love affair, which was brief, passionate, creepy, and like most abuse, really hard to admit to and get away from. Having just exited a voluptuously sadistic (and not the sexy or voluntary) relationship of my own, I was rightfully fascinated with the banality of the liberated woman being driven to a psychotic break by a controlling parasite of a man. What year is this again? The lunar calendar says it will be the Year of the Rat…and the jokes write themselves.

And finally, please understand that Kate Zambreno can pretty much put out a crayon drawing of a glass of skim milk and I would proclaim it to be the essay of the year, darling. So, how lucky am I that she squeezed out two whole books within a year, The Appendix Project and Screen Tests. It’s a pleasure to read her notes and staccato essays and examine the bones that may never make up a whole skeleton. In that, lies the true joy of these texts—the gaps and silences add up to a whole lot of potent noise and I wanna stick my head in the speaker. If you can’t party this hard, it’s high time you try out one of those coffee enemas Caren Beilin recommends and swears by in Blackfishing the IUD. May your cervix be well in your new year of reading!

Announcing the 2018 BTBA Longlists for Fiction and Poetry


Celebrating its eleventh consecutive year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards is pleased to announce the 2018 longlists for both fiction and poetry (we announced the 2017 and 2016 winners here at the site).

Announced here and at Three Percent, the lists include a diverse range of authors, languages, countries, and publishers. It features an array of notable presses—Ugly Duckling Presse, Black Ocean, Action, White Pines—along with previously nominated translators (Johannes Göransson appears for the second year in a row) and some new names, such as former BTBA judge, Katrine Øgaard Jensen. Combined, the longlists reflect the diversity of international books published last year by featuring authors from twenty-five different countries, writing in eighteen languages, and published by twenty-six different presses. New Directions and Seagull Books are the only presses to have titles on both longlists, with Feminist Press, New Directions, Open Letter, and Ugly Duckling Presse receiving the most nominations, with three longlisted titles each.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000 cash prizes. Three Percent at the University of Rochester founded the BTBAs in 2008, and over the past seven years, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $140,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced here at The Millions on Tuesday, May 15, and the winners will be announced on Thursday, May 31 as part of the New York Rights Fair, following the 4:30 panel on “Translated Literature Today: A Decade of Growth.”

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Caitlin Baker (University Book Store, Seattle), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman-Olmsted (Reader at Large), Lori Feathers (Interabang Books), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Adam Hetherington (author), Jeremy Keng (reader, freelance reviewer), Bradley Schmidt (translator), and P.T. Smith (Ebenezer Books, The Scofield). The poetry jury includes: Raluca Albu (BOMB), Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).

For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter. Over the next month, leading up to the announcement of the shortlists, Three Percent will be featuring a different title each day as part of the “Why This Book Should Win” series.

Best Translated Book Award 2018: Fiction Longlist

Incest by Christine Angot, translated from the French by Tess Lewis (France, Archipelago)

Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins (Canada, Coach House)

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Open Letter Books)

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (France, New Directions)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter Books) 

Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions) 

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Bolivia, Simon and Schuster)a

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (Germany, Pantheon)

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm (Poland, Feminist Press)

Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Madagascar, Restless Books)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey (Argentina, Soho Press)

August by Romina Paula, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft (Argentina, Feminist Press)

The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Mexico, Deep Vellum)

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Argentina, Riverhead)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Italy, Archipelago)

Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by Charis Bredin (Sudan, Darf Publishers)

The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, translated from the German by David Burnett (Germany, Pushkin Press)

Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Jeffery Zuckerman (France, Open Letter Books)

Remains of Life by Wu He, translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry (Taiwan, Columbia University Press)

Best Translated Book Award 2018: Poetry Longlist

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio, translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas (Uruguay, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Astroecology by Johannes Heldén, translated from the Swedish by Kirkwood Adams, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, and Johannes Heldén (Sweden, Argos Books)

Magnetic Point by Ryszard Krynicki translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (Poland, New Directions)

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andjaer Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Broken Dimanche Press)

Spiral Staircase by Hirato Renkichi, translated from the Japanese by Sho Sugita (Japan, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Directions for Use by Ana Ristovic, translated from the Serbian by Steven Teref and
Maja Teref (Serbia, Zephyr Press)

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

Iron Moon by Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry edited by Qin Xiaoyu, translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman (China, White Pine Press)

Image: Flickr

Christine Angot’s ‘Incest’ Is a Radical Act of Confession


Mid-way through Christine Angot’s pioneering, genre-bending novel, Incest—originally published to shock and acclaim in France in 1999 and newly translated into English by Tess Lewis—Angot’s lover laments, “I think of love and I feel invaded.” Angot is known for using the facts of her life as the basis for her fiction, and it seems that to love her is, indeed, to invite a kind of invasion. (She was sued for literally “pillaging the private life” of a different lover’s ex-partner in her 2011 novel Les Petits). The line also evokes what it feels like to be immersed in Angot’s most taboo work, a cyclone of language and raw emotion that explores, among other things, an incestuous relationship with her father. There’s the sense that things—traditional narrative structure, linear time, and so-called “healthy” boundaries, to name a few—have been breached.  It probes at ideas and emotions that feel untouchable. I think of this book, and I feel invaded.

The first and longest of the book’s three sections, titled “No Man’s Land,” drops us into Angot’s free-associative thought-spiral during the aftermath of her breakup from Marie-Christine Adrey, sometimes referred to as X, sometimes as MC or MCA, in a seemingly defiant nod toward protecting the innocent.  After dating for three months—or in Angot’s phrasing, after having temporarily “contracted” homosexuality—some unexplained event has caused a rift.  Angot copes by calling Marie-Christine incessantly to dissect their relationship, and ruminating on scenes from their time together in dizzying prose. “A lack of balance doesn’t scare me, there are others who can’t cope. Like her. People like her. Who have limits. I have none. Her, she has them. Me, I don’t.  She can’t stand it.  When things get so…neurotic.”

This neurosis is palpable throughout “No Man’s Land.” Certain images and trains of thought circle through the narrative like a carousel: lyrical, visceral descriptions of sex with Marie-Christine; mentions of Angot’s daughter, Leonore, who she often linguistically conflates with Marie-Christine (“I call Leonore Marie-Christine and I call Marie-Christine Leonore.”); Marie-Christine’s dog, Pitou; mysterious hatred for a woman named Nadine; water lilies, in an explicit homage to Charles Péguy’s theory of repetition: “It’s not the last water lily that repeats the first, it’s the first that repeats all the rest and the last.”  The implication, of course, is that there’s some root to this apparently rootless turmoil, a first water lily that is only clarified by the ones that follow.  The cyclical presentation of images in meant to provide understanding, but only in retrospect. More than once, Leonore is described as “the last water lily,” and the question naturally becomes: what, or more precisely who, is the first?

The answer doesn’t come as a shock, since the title never shies from being taken literally. The second section of the book, titled “Christmas,” starts to reexamine what came before in a more linear fashion, detailing the trigger that led to the unraveling of the narrator’s relationship with Marie-Christine. It hinges on Marie-Christine’s last-minute decision to spend Christmas at her cousin Nadine’s house, a change of plans that leaves Angot feeling abandoned—the makeshift family is forsaken for biological ties. Images from the first section begin to gather more context and depth: with disgust, she describes Marie-Christine’s loyalty to Nadine as that of a “lap-dog,” for example.

Interspersed throughout this section are elaborated clinical definitions of various psychoanalytic terms—paranoia, hysteria, madness.  She links homosexuality and incest by citing them both as examples of “structural perversion.” When she defines madness as logic’s other, the non-linear jumble of events that comprised the first section comes to be seen, paradoxically, as a carefully constructed expression of insanity.

The third and last section (also the shortest, comprising roughly 50 pages of the book’s 200) finally takes us into the eye of the storm, and relates details of the incest that animated the previous action.  Called “Valda Candy,” it’s what Angot is told to spit out before engaging in sex acts with her father, which she did periodically from the time of their first meeting when she was 14 until she was 26.  The narration morphs into something more focused and urgent, bordering on lucid, which underscores her lament for the coherent self that could have been, had the incest not taken place:
It wasn’t his brains I was sucking, do you realize, I could have had very handsome men, I could have loved Nadine’s movies, I could have spent Christmas Eve with you…But no…I’m weeping like the dog that I am…Dogs are stupid, you can get them to suck on a plastic bone, and they’re stupid, dogs believe you. They don’t even notice what they’re sucking on.  It’s horrible, being a dog.
It can take patience to stick with Angot through this structurally perverse expression of suffering.  Early on, she describes calling Marie-Christine 200 times in the span of a few days “to see if she loves me to exhaustion, as she claims.” At times, the reader feels similarly tested when trying to make sense of the repeating images and narrative chaos. But submitting to the logic (or illogic) of Angot’s world ultimately gives the thrilling sense of having melded with another consciousness, since it requires an almost complete abandonment of your own—in another nod to incest, this book often feels like its own referent.

Given this utter singularity, to call it a novel, or even a work of autofiction, feels reductive, though I’m not sure of a better term to describe the book’s rolling boil of playful, poetic tangents, psychoanalytic definitions, and biographical details that can be verified by a quick Google search. But the very paradox inherent in autofiction—something that simultaneously announces itself as both true and false, so as to expose the limitations of both labels—makes it a fitting categorization for a work that revels in inconsistency, contingencies, and the self-aware dissolution of structural conceits.

Another label that inevitably comes to mind when considering this book is “confessional.” The word has come to have a pejorative slant, used to strip first-person accounts—particularly, first-person accounts written by women—of art and intention. But Angot’s writing reclaims the confession as a radical act—spiritual, even. The word captures her fevered desire to write as a form of absolution:  “How I went insane, you will understand, I hope. And if it’s not enough I’ll write more books.”  By performing her insanity, she forces us to make it our own, to taste the plastic bones that we suck on. At its core, Incest is a true testament to the subversive power of literature, in that it transmutes the violation of incest into connection with the reader.  It the ultimate narrative and biographical paradox, it makes redemptive the thing that destroyed her.

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