Ecuador vs. Cameroon [Women's World Cup of Literature: Second Round]

This match was judged by Margaret Carson, who co-chairs the PEN America Translation Committee and crunches numbers for Women in Translation (WiT).

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In today’s match, Ecuador is represented by Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands, translated by Amalia Gladhart, and Cameroon by Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, translated by Tamsin Black.

Here’s one of those odd WWCOL matchings that other judges have commented on: under what circumstances would these two novels have otherwise been paired? The playing fields could not be more different. Beyond the Islands takes its cues from that well-worn playbook, magic realism, while Dark Heart of the Night tangles with cruelty, horror, violence, blood and guts. This is a match in which Miano’s dangerous writing squares off against Yánez Cossío’s safer and somewhat recycled magic realist storytelling.

In eight, mostly self-contained chapters, Beyond the Islands (in Spanish, Más allá de las islas Galápagos, and what’s so clunky about “Galapagos” that it was left out in the translation?) draws from a rich storehouse of imagery and fantastical elements to portray eight characters, each with something a little “special.” Morgan, a green-eyed pirate with a peg leg, Iridia, a tenderhearted prostitute, Alirio, a poet whose pockets are stuffed with abandoned poems, others. Each one meets a mist-shrouded end and gets transported elsewhere, often on wings. That’s where the magic comes in. Iridia, for example, ascends to the great beyond in a grand Chagallian flourish. As translated by Amalia Gladhart:

Iridia began to ascend the celestial ramp . . . [she] might have lost her balance, but a supernatural force was carrying her obliquely upwards toward the center of the sun, with the mechanism of an automatic staircase. Iridia was light and she kept walking; she was slowly gaining altitude like a weightless figure from the brush of Marc Chagall. From time to time she paused to breathe and reestablish her balance, although she knew that her shoes had sprouted soft suction pads that stuck to the ray, which was the same one that trapped the white butterfly that emerged from Morgan’s foot, and that illuminated the viscous dampness, like semen, that had been Alirio.

Exuberantly fantastical passages like this happen over and over in the novel, and they might be just your thing. But as someone who has been hearing about and reading Latin American magical realism for over thirty years, I wanted at times to yell, “ya basta,” enough. It felt as if the team were dribbling in circles, running down the clock, indulging in flashy play for its own sake. Look! Another player has sprouted wings and is suspended midair!

But it’s a tenacious genre. To my surprise, the game would pick up, new players would be introduced, each with an idiosyncratic tic. Long dull stretches would be followed by something stupendously ridiculous, like the story of the life-size woman doll that when filled with warm water turns into a kind of high-maintenance sex toy. It’s almost all harmless, with metamorphoses rather than outright death, except for the cruel burning of the plant-gatherer and healer Brigita, who’s taken to be a witch.

You might ask why a magic realist novel first published in 1980 comes into English thirty years later, well after the heyday of Latin American magic realism; but put those questions aside. Here it is, still playing with zest and wacky energy, winging its way down the field to score a few goals.

On the other hand, Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night (published in France in 2005 as L’intérieur de la nuit) plays a much more disturbing game. Set in a remote village in an unnamed African country, the novel tells the story of Ayané, the only child of the Aama and Eké, a couple who ignore the traditional customs and rules of the village and are ostracized as a result. But it’s just as well, because it allows Ayané to escape the destiny of other girls whose mothers “taught them to live as they had done, with gritted teeth, a ramrod-straight back and vanquished hope” (in Tamsin Black’s translation). Ayané is sent away to school and grows up, mostly off stage, to become an enterprising and spirited young woman.

Up to this point the novel seems like a rare coming-of-age story of a young African woman, but then it suddenly turns into gruesome bloodbath. Ayané’s return home to tend to her dying mother coincides with the arrival in the village of a band of drug-crazed revolutionaries in need of soldiers. There is resistance, followed by page after page of unbearable brutality, witnessed by Ayané from the high branch of a tree. You might find yourself recoiling from the descriptions of decapitations, castration, the murder of a child, disembowelments, the cooking and eating of entrails and brains, sustained for over forty pages. Once again, you want to yell, “enough!”

When I first read this novel I hated it. Its violence and cruelty seemed gratuitous, over the top, frankly sadistic. But just as the sporting world has its “extreme sports,” maybe literature too has its “extremes” that deeply disturb and push at whatever limits are out there? Of course it does; the orgies of violence in Dark Heart make you think of the Marquis de Sade, Alejandra Pizarnik in The Bloody Countess, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker. Contrary to what we might think, Miano is not doing social realism. She’s not chronicling horrendous acts of violence in Africa (which of course are not unique to Africa) in order to cater to the expectations of outsiders. Whether or not she succeeds is another matter, but she could care less about enchanting the reader. She’s asking herself: can this be described in words?

I won’t overdo the soccer analogies, but I considered: which of the two novels “goes for it”? Which one scuffs up the turf, does some damage, earns a few red cards, challenges some notions about what women write about when they write novels?

For her more ambitious game plan, Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night advances, beating Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands 4-3.


And now half of the final six are set, with Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night joining Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine and Atwood’s Oryx & Crake in the upcoming quarterfinals.

Tomorrow’s match features Nigeria’s Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie up against Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

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