Four Books From Underrepresented Countries [My Year in Lists]

Yesterday I posted a bit of a screed against lists, followed immediately by a list of the six translations everyone’s talking about. My hope is to produce a bunch of lists featuring literature in translation from 2015, all organized by various rubrics that can allow you to find a handful of recommendations with a minimum of posturing and “best-ness.”

On the first podcast of the year, Tom and I talked about our reading goals for 2015. I can’t remember the exact number or percentage, but I vowed to read more books from these sorts of underrepresented countries, since I tend to fall into the habit of reading a ton of writers from France and the Southern Cone, despite knowing full well that there are a lot of great books coming out from other parts of the world.

So, for today, here are four recommendations of titles from countries whose literature tends not to get as much attention as books from Western Europe and South America.

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)

One of the best books AmazonCrossing has ever published. (Well, out of the handful I’ve read, that is . . . ) Despite Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature Series, Korean books still don’t get the attention and respect they deserve.

It’s too early to really call this, but it looks like Bae Suah is going to be the exception to that. Sure, Kyung-Sook Shin got some good press for Please Look After Mom, but I’m not sure how well that sold, and her ensuing titles didn’t get nearly that amount of attention. (Doesn’t help that she went from being published by Knopf to being published by Other Press.)

On the other hand, Nowhere to Be Found was just named to the longlist for the PEN Translation Prize and Open Letter will be bringing out a new novel of hers next October. I wrote a longish review about this book, which opens as follows:

In Nowhere to Be Found, her second work translated into English following Highway with Green Apples, Bae Suah does more with character and narrative in 60 pages than most novelists accomplish in 300. With concise, evocative prose, Bae merges the mundane with the strange in a way that leaves the reader fulfilled yet bewildered, pondering how exactly the author managed to pull this all off.

Plot-wise, Nowhere to Be Found is pretty straightforward. Set, for the most part, in 1988, the unnamed narrator is a young temporary worker at a university in Gyeonggi Province as a sort of administrative assistant and works part-time at a nearby restaurant, running herself ragged in order to support her semi-appreciative family. Not much of the narrator’s life outside of work is depicted. Although she does have a boyfriend of sorts, it’s complicated both by his being away in the military and by the fact that his mother thoroughly dislikes her for being lower class.

This book is great, as is the one we’re bringing out. Get on the Bae Suah train now! And if you’re looking for other great Korean titles to read, grab a copy of The Vegetarian by Han Kang when it comes out in early 2016.

Home by Leila Chudori, translated from the Indonesian by John McGlynn (Deep Vellum)

I could easily have included one of the two Eka Kurniawan titles that came out this year on this list as an Indonesian representative, but those books have gotten some play, and I wanted to use this chance to draw some attention to John McGlynn.

First, in terms of the book itself, it’s a family saga that revolves around Dimas Suryo, a journalist who escapes Indonesia just before Suharto took over. He ends up in Paris with a few of his compatriots, where they open and Indonesia restaurant and dream of returning to their homeland. (Which won’t happen.) Thirty years later, as Suharto’s regime is crumbling, Dimas’s daughter decides to make a documentary on Indonesia for her final project . . .

Written in straight-forward prose, Home is mostly interesting to me for its historical information and the way that it bounces throughout time and point of view to tell this history of exile. It would make a great book club book, and unfortunately was overshadowed, in terms of review coverage, by Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, which happened to come out at almost the exact same time. (Doesn’t help that Beauty covers the same period of history, but in a much different way.)

With one exception (Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata), the only other Indonesian titles that have been released in the U.S. are from the Lontar Foundation, a nonprofit in Jakarta dedicated to promoting Indonesian literature, which was co-founded by John McGlynn, the translator Home. From what I know of John, he’s the Will Evans of Indonesia. He’s translated and edited over 100 works of Indonesian literature, is the Indonesian correspondent for Manoa, and has edited a special Indonesian Lit issue for Words Without Borders. Almost single-handedly, he’s been introducing Indonesian literature to the world since 1987!

The Knight and His Shadow by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French (Senegal) by Alan Furness (Michigan State University Press)

A full review of this is forthcoming for Three Percent, so I won’t spend too much time on the book itself here. I do want to share the opening of Michael Orthofer’s review at the Complete Review, though, especially since it was one of the only outlets to have covered this book. (Proving once again that if you want to know as much about international literature as possible, you have to read Complete Review and the Literary Saloon.):

As befits a novel featuring a knight in its title, The Knight and His Shadow is fundamentally a quest-tale: Lat-Sukabé receives a message from the woman he still loves but who disappeared from his life eight years earlier, Khadidja—a cry for help: “Lat-Sukabé, come before it’s too late.” He sets out for out-of-the-way Bilenty, where she is apparently to be found, but his account is from his time in the nearby town where he has to arrange the pirogue-trip to Bilenty.

The novel is presented in three acts, covering the three days of his stay there, a holding pattern of sorts. Having embarked on his quest, he must see if he really has the will to see it through—a journey that, he comes to realize, might be something completely different from what he had expected (or talked himself into), Khadidja’s siren-call not quite what it seems to be and his quest perhaps a more personal one than it ostensibly seems.

Diop structures the novel cleverly. Having Lat-Sukabé narrate the account might already hint that this is also a story of personal (self-) discovery, but the transitions lead the reader—and the protagonist—there in an unexpected way.

What most impresses me is how MSU Press has decided to publish a series of translations from Africa and the Middle East. They published books from Senegal, Jordan, and Tanganyika in 2015, and have an Algerian book coming out early next year. Although getting attention and readers for these books is an uphill battle for a university press (for anyone really), they can quickly become one of the go-to presses for finding books from these parts of the world—regions that more commercial houses tend not to pay much attention to, but which we readers deserve to know more about.

Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf, translated from the Russian (Moldova) by Boris Dralyuk (Phoneme Media)

I’m including this here in part because its been compared to Bruno Schulz, in part because it’s only the second book from Moldova to come out in the past eight years (The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by the amazing Ross Ufberg being the other), and in part because Phoneme Media deserves as much attention as possible.

First, here’s the first paragraph of the book itself:

One day a freight arrived from Grigoriopol with no head car, but no one noticed. No one even noticed that no one noticed. People often pay no heed, at times, to things they later don’t notice. No one, in fact, knows where this head car is—whether it arrived from Grigoriopol, whether it will arrive, whether there’s even a railroad in those parts.

(This story also includes a Gypsy, which gets an automatic thumbs up from me.)

In the short time they’ve been publishing, Phoneme Media has done some incredible things. They published Diorama by Rocio Ceron, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry. They did Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, which may be the only collection of indigenous Mexican poetry I’ve ever seen. (And which may well make my “Poetry Books I Would Read if I Read More Poetry” list.) The did The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo. They brought out Uyghurland by Ahmatjan Osman, which is the only book in the Translation Database translated from the Uyghur. They’ve published several books by Mario Bellatin. Overall, thanks to David Shook’s vision, they’ve become one of the hippest, most notable presses for finding strange, beautiful books from languages and parts of the world that are underrepresented.

I’m pretty sure that over the next few years—with the launch of Tilted Axis, expansion of MSU and Phoneme and others—it will become easier and easier for readers to find books from parts of the world that have historically been underrepresented. To be honest, looking over the list of books from 2015, I was kind of shocked how hard it was to find books from non-traditional countries. Sure, there are four titles from Georgia and seven from Egypt, but only one from: Angola, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Curacao, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tunisia. Added together, these countries accounted for 20 titles published in translation in 2015. By contrast, 94 came out from France along.

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