Germany vs. Thailand [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Emily Ballaine from Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
In a David and Goliath style match up, these two completely different novels from opposite corners of the globe went head to head in a literary grudge match of unreliable narrators performing acts of morally questionable parenting. Germany (a historic breeding ground of bullying and over-the-top sorts of characters) approached the match with an outlandish style of writing in an attempt to trick the reader into trusting a fundamentally untrustworthy narrator. Thailand, on the other hand, employed a strategy of lyrical, heartfelt prose geared for a young adult audience.
With the bookies in Vegas leaning heavily toward The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky from Germany, however, this match turned out to be closer than initially expected with The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva from Thailand making a daring (although ultimately unsuccessful) play for the win by pulling out all the emotional stops in its tale of a girl whose mother is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease and her search for the father she has been hidden from.
Both books deal with motherhood and more importantly the decisions mothers make for their children in surprising ways and with two mothers who could not be more different. Rosa, the hilarious and completely unreliable narrator of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is far from pleased when she learns that her seventeen year-old daughter, “stupid Sulfia,” is pregnant. Rosa does everything in her power to terminate the pregnancy, but when her efforts prove to be unsuccessful and Aminat is born nine months later, Rosa is surprised to find that she is filled with a deep well of love and affection for the little girl, so much so that she comes to believe that she could do a far better job of raising the child than “stupid Sulfia.”
This idea that mothers somehow inherently know what is best for their children is a theme that both books tackle in different ways. By the end of Hottest Dishes it becomes clear that Rosa has not only ruined Sulfia’s life, but also her beloved granddaughter Aminat’s life through her selfishness and cruelty. The mother in The Happiness of Kati on the other hand, though clearly wrong in her decision to hide Kati’s father from her, feels like a more morally redeemable character—unlike Rosa her actions do not stem from selfishness but rather a desire to protect her daughter from pain. With that said though Rosa is just a far more interesting character (as “bad” characters tend to be).
What really makes this a David and Goliath match up (although is it still correct/fair to call something a David and Goliath match up when Goliath wins?) is that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is written for adults while The Happiness of Kati is written for young adults. There are many valid points on both sides of the should-adults-read-YA-argument, but the crux of the matter in this particular match up is that it is just inherently unfair to pit a YA book against a novel written for adults. While a touching story, The Happiness of Kati is nowhere near as sophisticated in structure or style as The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine and lacks the biting cynicism of Hottest Dishes’ lovably horrible narrator.
The larger takeaway from this match up was an angry call to arms over the sad deficit of books in translation from female Thai writers. With the match still tied after halftime, the crowd began to cheer, More Thai Literature! More Thai Literature! With typical German efficiency, however, the Germans ignored the clamor for the other team and scored four goals in quick succession, dispatching the Thai team with a final score of 5 – 1.
With that, Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine moves on to ace Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou on Tuesday, June 23rd, in what promises to be a tight match.
Tomorrow’s match—the last one of Round One—will be judged by M. Lynx Quarley and features Japan’s Revenge by Yoko Ogawa up against Ecuador’s Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo.