The Governesses

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A Year in Reading: Ayşe Papatya Bucak

I am vulnerable to the word
once.

“‘Once long ago,’ Rogni said, ‘an old woman in a flowered housedress sat on a kitchen chair steeping tea in a cracked brown teapot. She was the Nurse-of-Becoming; she was getting ready to imagine two sisters. Only she made three mistakes.’” So begins Kathryn Davis’s Labrador. The curtain parts. The world disappears.

One of my favorite things to read this year has been Sabrina Orah Mark’s series Happily, on fairy tales and motherhood, online at The Paris Review. “My son’s first grade teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People,” the first essay begins. The curtain parts. The world divides. The ghost people appear by my side.

“In the house opposite, in the dark night of the garden, the governesses are playing cards. Eléonore who seems so straitlaced is laughing like a madwoman,” writes Anne Serre (and translator Mark Hutchinson), in The Governesses, another of my favorites. One that the New Directions catalog copy refers to as a “semi-deranged erotic fairy tale,” by the way. The curtains part. A light comes on the dark.

“Mouths open to the sun, they sleep,” begins Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive, yet another favorite. The curtain parts. The dream begins. Current events become story.

Each year I tell my creative writing classes they must attempt to write literature, and literature does not let readers escape the world, it forces them to engage with the world. Your writing can be in any genre, I tell them, but its goal must be engagement, not escape. There are lots of enjoyable books that serve as an escape, I say. But that’s not what we’re writing.

I am not so sure anymore though.

Don’t I use literature as an escape?

Once I asked a student what he
thought made a good book.

“A book that changes how you
think?” he said.

“Then what makes a great book?”
I asked.

“A book that changes how you
act?” he said.

Do books ever change how I act?

I wonder.

I tell my students that writing
should give the reader an experience.

That implies books could change
how we act. Experiences change how we act. Don’t they? Shouldn’t they?

In the spring, I was supposed to review Kathryn Davis’s novel The Silk Road. I volunteered to do it. I love the strange worlds of Kathryn Davis’s creations, and a novel that shifted between the Philadelphia suburbs of my mother’s ancestors and the silk road journeys of my father’s ancestors seemed custom-built for me. But I read it and I faltered. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t sure if I liked it. So I read it again, and I liked it more, but understood it less. Possibly I became obsessed with it and the strange siblings that drift across its pages in some kind of maybe physical, maybe metaphysical journey after one of them has died. Possibly I read it three times. Still I couldn’t review it.

I suggested to the editor that I write an essay on Davis’s work as a whole instead. They agreed. So I reread Duplex, my favorite (schoolteacher dates sorcerer in suburban town studied by robots) and Hell, my second favorite (braided narrative of households across time and space, but much stranger than that makes it sound). I read Versailles (an often humorous Marie Antoinette retelling), The Walking Tour (two couples take a tour of Wales, not everybody comes home) and finally Labrador (awkward sister gets taken to Arctic by eccentric grandfather who is eaten by polar bear while graceful sister stays home and gets pregnant).

It was one of my favorite and strangest periods of reading. Dream upon dream. Not daydreams, which are carefully constructed fantasies, but night dreams, made up of recognizable parts assembled in peculiar configurations. I went into each novel and came back out again unable to recount exactly where I’d been. (The Silk Road aptly begins: “We were in the labyrinth.”)  Maybe this doesn’t sound like a positive recommendation; but what I am trying to say is I lived inside of Kathryn Davis’s writing for awhile, and if you are the kind of person who wants to see the world with greater wonder, who is always looking for foreign lands in the backs of wardrobes, who understands death to be close all of the time but also probably not within the realm of imagining—these books are for you. They are an escape, though one from which you return with a greater capacity for seeing and appreciating the wondrous world.

But still I didn’t write the
essay.

Maybe this had less to do with
the difficulties of writing and more to do with the difficulties of life.

My father died this year. Now I have another father, of memory and story and imagination, an autofictional father existing in another dimension. Now I tell stories about him that he will never hear. On his death certificate, the funeral home listed him as female. They also handed his box of remains to my mother inside of a sparkly green gift bag. Upon receiving this gift, my mother and I did not react, nor look at each other, until we stepped outside of the building and burst into laughter.  “It’s okay, I’ll reuse it,” my mother said. We laughed even harder. But my father, who appreciated jokes, perhaps would not have appreciated this one.

“Will you weep when I die?” he
used to ask me, as if there was any doubt.

Once once once. I had a father.

Escape engage. Escape engage.
The story of mourning.

In Turkish there is a storytelling tense, not past, not present, not future. The tense for repeating things you heard secondhand but did not have direct experience of. The once-upon-a-time tense. In that tense I still have a father.

When my father died he had both
Alzheimer’s and a rare form of mouth cancer. Because of the Alzheimer’s he
sometimes forgot he had cancer. My mother would have to tell him again.  And again.

If she could have, my mother
would have let him forget. But my father would moan, or scream, or really
scream, that his mouth hurt, why wasn’t she taking him to the dentist, why
wasn’t she helping him. Even after weeks of chemo, he could still forget.

Wouldn’t it be nice if
forgetting was an escape? But all it did was make his pain inexplicable.

Because I am both Turkish and not, every year I read as many Turkish writers as I can.  This year I had much appreciation for: Ayşegül Savaş’s lyric novel Walking on the Ceiling; jailed politician Selahattin Demirtaş’s sometimes charming, sometimes brutal story collection Dawn; Ece Temelkuran’s dire but believable warning that engagement without activism becomes the mere “expression and exchange of emotional responses” How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship; Can Dündar’s surprisingly humorous and even joyful We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes From a Turkish Prison; and journalist Ahmet Altan’s more somber I Will Never See the World Again (translated by Yasemin Congar), also written in jail and smuggled out via his lawyers.

But the book that stopped me in my tracks was More by Hakan Günday (translated by Zeynep Beler). You can’t find a summary or review of the novel that doesn’t include words like harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling. The narrator is a teenager engaged in the family business—smuggling refugees for money with zero concern for the refugees’ safety or survival. It is no surprise that this novel has not had the popularity of its much sunnier bookend, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Where Hamid uses fantasy to create hope, Günday uses it to create horror. The title comes from the refugees’ cries for “more” food as the narrator scrapes excrement off the floor of the concrete bunker they are buried in during the smuggling process. The novel, which to be clear, I admired tremendously, reads very much like a nightmare—appropriately so given the real life circumstances it is trying to place the reader inside of. But even it, was also, for me, an escape. What have I done for the Syrian refugees other than imagine their nightmare? Doesn’t educating myself about the horrors of the world make me feel proud! But what does it do for those who suffer them?

I guess I believe reading
generates empathy. I feel pretty sure it can offer readers life experiences
they would not otherwise have. But does it change how we act?

Engage escape engage
escape. 

When I read Ahmet Altan, I am outraged at his imprisonment. When I read the news of his release, I feel joy. When I read the news of his re-arrest, I feel outrage again. But feelings aren’t engagement, are they?

Are they?

For me, the action that reading triggers is writing. And here is my bigger fear: that writing isn’t engagement either.

I don’t doubt the value of
literature, of representation, of the framing of narratives, of making our pain
explicable, but writing isn’t enough. How could it be? And yet, at times, I
have treated it as if it is. Even now, even now as I type this and imagine you
reading it, I am hoping that you, not I, will be moved to act, to right the
world, right…now.

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Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists

The Best Translated Books Awards today named its 2019 finalists for fiction and poetry. The award, founded by Three Percent at the University of Rochester, comes with $10,000 in prizes from the Amazon Literary Partnership.

In the past seven years, the ALP has contributed more than $150,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

This year’s BTBA finalists are as follows—and be sure to check out this year’s fiction and poetry longlists, which we announced last month.

Fiction Finalists

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Poetry Finalists

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi(Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

The winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 29 as part of the New York Rights Fair.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Longlists

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Celebrating its 12th year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards named its 2019 longlists for both fiction and poetry.

Announced here—with a write-up tomorrow from BTBA founder Chad Post at Three Percent—the lists include a diverse range of authors, languages, countries, and publishers. It features familiar presses—Ugly Duckling Presse, Coffee House, New Directions—along with presses appearing for the first time, such as Song Cave and Fitzcarraldo.

Nineteen different translators are making their first appearance, while last year’s winning team of author Rodrigo Fresán and translator Will Vanderhyden returns. The lists feature authors writing in 16 different languages, from 24 different countries. The books were published by 26 different presses, the majority either independent or university presses.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000. The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on Wednesday, May 15.

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Fiction Longlist

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

A Dead Rose by Aurora Cáceres, translated from the Spanish by Laura Kanost (Peru, Stockcero)

Love in the New Millennium by Xue Can, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Wedding Worries by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen and Lo Dagerman (Sweden, David Godine)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Iran, Europa Editions)

Dézafi by Frankétienne, translated from the French by Asselin Charles (published by Haiti, University of Virginia Press)

Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter)

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Russia, Deep Vellum)

People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle (Argentina, And Other Stories)

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Argentina, Coffee House)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Mexico, Coffee House)

Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugo Ono, translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill (Japan, Two Lines Press)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Codex 1962 by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Poland, Riverhead)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai (Japan, FSG)

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Pierce Alquist (BookRiot), Caitlin L. Baker (Island Books), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman (freelance book critic), George Carroll (litintranslation.com), Adam Hetherington (reader), Keaton Patterson (Brazos Bookstore), Sofia Samatar (writer), Ely Watson (A Room of One’s Own).

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Poetry Longlist

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tenella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar, translated from the Persian by Blake Atwood (Iran, University of Texas)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

Scardanelli by Frederike Mayrocker, translated from the German by Jonathan Larson (Austria, Song Cave)

the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied (Denmark, Open Letter)

Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, translated from the French by Jonathan Larson (France, Song Cave)

Architecture of a Dispersed Life by Pable de Rokha, translated from the Spanish by Urayoán Noel (Chile, Shearsman Books)

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Laura Marris (writer and translator).

For more information, visit the Best Translated Book Award site, the BTBA Facebook page, and the BTBA Twitter. And check out our coverage from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

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