15 July 16

This video has been out for a couple of months, but just came to my attention recently. It’s of Angélica Freitas reading from Rilke Shake, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan and published by Phoneme Media. It also won this year’s Best Translated Book Award. (Speaking of which, it’s about time to start planning and releasing info about next year . . . )


Rilke Shake from David Shook on Vimeo.

3 May 16

It took a bit longer than planned, but we did it! There are now “Why This Book Should Win” write-ups for all 35 books that were longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Browse through these, find a few to read, and tune in to The Millions tomorrow at 7pm to find out who won.

To make it easier to catch up on all the entries in this series, listed below are all of the titles, linked to their WTBSW post. (I’ll keep updating this as more of the pieces go up.)

These pieces are a great way to handicap the field, to get a sense of what the particular juries were paying attention to this year, and to find a handful of titles to check out for your own reading pleasure.

Enjoy!

BTBA 2016 Fiction Longlist


A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)

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

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)

French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)

War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)

Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)

Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)


BTBA 2016 Poetry Longlist


A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

19 April 16

Ten works of fiction and six poetry collections remain in the running for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards following the announcement of the two shortlists at The Millions website this morning.

These sixteen finalists represent an incredible array of writing styles and reputation, and include the likes of Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, Georgi Gospodinov, Gabrielle Wittkop, Liu Xia, Abdourahman Waberi, and more. These titles were selected from the nearly 570 works of fiction and poetry published in English translation in 2015.

The sixteen titles on these two shortlists are translated from nine different languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish having the most finalists, with three a piece) and thirteen different countries (Brazil, China, and Mexico have two authors each). Ten of the shortlisted titles are by women, including Load Poems Like Guns, which features the work of eight Afghani women poets. Fourteen different presses, with only New Directions and Open Letter Books being responsible for more than one shortlisted title, published the finalists.

As in recent years, the Best Translated Book Awards are underwritten by the Amazon Literary Partnership program, which allow both winning authors and winning translators to receive $5,000 cash prizes. Thanks to this gift, Three Percent at the University of Rochester will have awarded $100,000 in cash prizes to international authors and translators since 2011.

The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on The Millions (www.themillions.com) on Tuesday, April 19th, and the winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 4th at 7 p.m., simultaneously on The Millions and at a live event at The Folly in New York City. There will also be a celebration during BookExpo America at 5 p.m. on May 11th at 57th St. Books in Chicago.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Council for European Studies), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.

19 April 16

As announced “earlier this morning at The Millions,”: these are the ten fiction finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)



The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

As in years past, each of the winning authors and translators (for poetry and fiction), will receive $5,000 cash prizes thanks to the support of Amazon’s Literary Partnership program. Actually, after these are awarded, the BTBA will have given out $100,000 in prizes to international authors and their translators—not a bad accomplishment!

To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we will be hosting two separate events.

First up, on May 4th from 6:30-8:00pm, the official awards ceremony will take place at The Folly (92 W. Houston St., New York). The two winning titles will be revealed at 7pm sharp—both live in person AND at The Millions.

Then, one week later during BookExpo America, there will be a special celebration at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago) from 5:00-6:30pm. There will be some drinks and refreshments on hand, along with several BTBA judges. (Worth noting that this event will be immediately followed by Family History of Fear: Agata Tuszynska, Ron Balson, and Greg Archer. This is part of the Polish programming that’s going on during BEA, and something a lot of BTBA fans will likely be interested in.)

Finally, just to thank them publicly once again, here’s the list of all the wonderful judges for this year’s award: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books), Jason Grunebaum (translator from the Hindi, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator from Czech and Dutch), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P.T. Smith (writer and reader).

Now you have sixteen days in which to argue about which title deserves to win . . . And for more information about all of these, I highly recommend checking out the Why This Book Should Win posts.

19 April 16

As announced “earlier this morning at The Millions,”: these are the six poetry finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:



Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)



Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

As in years past, each of the winning authors and translators (for poetry and fiction), will receive $5,000 cash prizes thanks to the support of Amazon’s Literary Partnership program. Actually, after these are awarded, the BTBA will have given out $100,000 in prizes to international authors and their translators—not a bad accomplishment!

To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we will be hosting two separate events.

First up, on May 4th from 6:30-8:00pm, the official awards ceremony will take place at The Folly (92 W. Houston St., New York). The two winning titles will be revealed at 7pm sharp—both live in person AND at The Millions.

Then, one week later during BookExpo America, there will be a special celebration at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago) from 5:00-6:30pm. There will be some drinks and refreshments on hand, along with several BTBA judges. (Worth noting that this event will be immediately followed by Family History of Fear: Agata Tuszynska, Ron Balson, and Greg Archer. This is part of the Polish programming that’s going on during BEA, and something a lot of BTBA fans will likely be interested in.)

This year’s poetry jury consisted of Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Words Without Borders), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

19 April 16

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

Though Zapotec has existed as a written language for more than 2,000 years, Natalia Toledo was the first woman to write and publish poetry in her native language. In 2004 she won the Nezhualcóyotl Prize—Mexico’s most prestigious prize for indigenous-language literature—for The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, a collection of poetry which describes contemporary Isthmus Zapotec life in rich detail. Or rather: in vivid imagery, in Clare Sullivan’s gorgeous translation, published by Phoneme Media.

In the opening poem, an overflowing river turns the world’s population into fish while God appears on a peeling wall, observed by the speaker of the poem “from behind a black leafed tree.” Leaves and flowers, sometimes black, form a recurring motif in this hauntingly stunning collection. These plants appear to be inevitable extensions of the humans inhabiting Toledo’s poems, for better and for worse. For instance, in “Loving”, a water lily is “born on the river’s surface / as you break forth / from the dream between my legs” in a tender yet slightly violent moment; in “Huipil”, flowers are involved in yet another violence, this time of the skin: “Facing the sky like a lizard / I settle you in a trunk that smells of pine. / My skin bursts with the flowers etched upon my dress. / Men and hummingbirds can come and pinch me / tonight, / my happiness is nectar that flows.”

The hummingbird motif reminded me of another Zapotec poet whose work I greatly admire: Irma Pineda. Upon finishing The Black Flower, I was thrilled to discover in Clare Sullivan’s translator’s note—located at the end of the book—that Pineda actually assisted Sullivan during the challenging translation process: “Toledo herself translated all the poems [. . .] from Zapotec to Spanish and Pineda helped me compare the original to Toledo’s translation verse by verse. Sometimes the poet deliberately changes a poem when rendering it from Zapotec into its Spanish incarnation, perhaps to clarify an image for a wider Mexican audience or to enrich the sound in Spanish.”

Sullivan goes on to explain that these translations into Spanish are always “poetry in their own right: This requires a tremendous effort on the part of Toledo and other indigenous language poets: they must not only be poets who know another language but poets in two different languages.” All the more reason why The Black Flower should win the Best Translated Book Award—this collection is clearly the result of intense and masterful poet/translator collaboration, and it is a collection which I will surely revisit for years to come.

18 April 16

I wanted to write a lot more about this, but I’m running out of time . . . Here are a few clues about the fiction and poetry finalists for the 2016 Best Translated Book Awards. The shortlists will be officially unveiled tomorrow morning (Tuesday, April 19th) at 10am over at The Millions.

Fiction Finalists:

  • Authors from nine different countries on the shortlist;

  • Books translated from eight different languages;

  • Eight different publishers are on the list;

  • Half of the books are written by women;

  • Yes, there is some overlap with the Man Booker International shortlist;

  • Eight of the translators on the shortlist are women.

That should get you started . . . I suspect that someone will be able to guess at least seven of these titles.

As in years past, the first person to email me and correctly identify all ten titles will receive a complimentary one-year subscription to Open Letter.

* * *


Over on the Poetry side of things:

  • There are six titles on the shortlist;

  • Five are by women;

  • Five different countries are represented;

  • Five different languages are represented;

  • No publisher has more than one book on the list.

OK, since this is a bit easier, I’ll give the first person to guess all six a complete set of Open Letter poetry titles.

Guess away!

18 April 16

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Monica Carter, former BTBA judge and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, Writers Tribe Review, and other publications. She is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in World Literature Today, Black Clock and Foreword Reviews. She is the Project Coördinator for Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools. She is currently working on her novel. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

“I left some portions of the document in my drawer, and handed over others. The parts I handed over described my contribution and loyalty to Re-Ed, while the ones I left behind in my drawer contained material I hoped to use for a novel after I succeeded becoming a new man. I didn’t know which of these was more important to me, just as I didn’t know which is more important – the life of an author, or his works.”


Yan Lianke is a distinguished novelist not quite recognized as he should be in his own native China despite having been nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning the Franz Kafka Prize, which is based on an author’s oeuvre to date. He is revered in China although most of his works have been banned there, including Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village (a run was published but then recalled) and his current work, The Four Books, which never found a mainland publisher. Political dissension doesn’t make a literary work great, but a continual effort to challenge bureaucratic revisionist history of one’s own government provides a strong foundation for honest, compelling, exemplary work especially in the face of reprobation. The Four Books is morbidly farcical, a literary feat that few authors can achieve, but more importantly stuns with its complexity that appears simple, its messages that seem to be reductive reboots of communist propaganda and its styles varied yet fluid enough to be utterly readable.

This is not an “entertaining” book, although it entertains. It is a book of importance and by the fact that it is banned in the author’s homeland; it no doubt will be included one day in the canon of great Chinese literature.

The Four Books chronicles the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and also sardonically includes the use of red blossoms as rewards for good deeds based on Mao Zedong Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) that promoted open expression of the regime in order to let intellectual ideas flourish. Of course, Mao did a quick turnabout deciding that those intellectuals who took advantage of that freedom should be imprisoned for their counterrevolutionary ideas. As part of Mao’s economic initiative to reign victorious in grain and steel production over the West, where the “United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany and Italy are cock, balls and feces,” he collectivized farming in rural areas and established Re-Education districts for rebellious criminals.

The novel opens with the setting of the ninety-ninth district located on the embankment of the Yellow River where the goal was to assign each criminal “a number and re-educate them through hard labor.” The characters that figure prominently in this district are the Child, a low level leader in the Party whose ideology is based on an adolescent viewpoint of the world, Communism and the concept of reward and punishment, followed by intellectuals only referred to by their former profession: the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and most importantly, the Author. Almost a character itself, Chinese color symbolism imbues each page using red, white, yellow and black often and effectively to represent traditional interpretations ranging from beauty to imperial power to Communism.

Lianke shrewdly structures the book with alternating excerpts from four books. Translator Carlos Rojas stylistically creates fluidity and vibrancy throughout the novel with his language and interpretative choices. It opens with Heaven’s Child, an anonymous book written in holy language borrowed from a pastiche of religious texts including the Bible and The Four Books of Confucius. Then he alternates with excerpts from Criminal Records in which the Author records the infractions of his fellow district criminals and is promised by the “higher-ups” “that as long as you finish the this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be a leader of the country’s writers.” With the rationed ink and paper he is given, the Author also begins his memoir, Old Course, an intimate first person account of his thoughts, his gradual devolvement from witness of the ninety-ninth to a gradual obsession with growing wheat bigger than an ear of corn. The fourth book is also the final chapter that is the Scholar’s partial version of The New Myth of Sisyphus. The Scholar’s unfinished philosophical text about what he has learned from living in the Re-Ed District states that once humans become acclimated to the conditions of punishment, humiliation and debasement, harsher forms must be introduced make them understand the idea of hardship and challenge. Lianke turns up Camus’s myth into a futile exercise that involves the draconian task of not only rolling the rock up the hill, but down it as well.

As a symbol of the Communist Party, the Child is demanding, easily provoked, craves attention and wants to be constantly rewarded by the “higher ups.” The intellectuals make promises to him in order to gain paper red blossoms, which once they gain one hundred twenty-five, they will be allowed to leave and return home. He makes them swear that if they don’t mean it they say he makes childish, melodramatic demands like asking them to take a gun (placed on a platter), shoot him in the chest and make sure that he falls forward, not backwards.

Even though through raiding all the counterrevolutionary books of the intellectuals he is usually caught reading comic books emphasizing the simplistic nature of the bureaucracy as well as its lack of substantive provocative ideas. Paralleling the belief system of Christianity, even though the Theologian is forced to give up his copy of the New Testament for the Child to burn, Child’s is fascinated by a picture of Mother Mary. He ends up believing in the mythological nature of the stories of Genesis to justify the actions of the Politburo in Beijing.

Determined to earn enough red blossoms to return home, the Author goes to live by himself so he can produce wheat as big as ears of corn. At first, he encounters a feeling of freedom and renewed vitality to write but then in order to keep his promise of growing this Monsanto-esque wheat stalks, he devolves into chained slave vulnerable to the perils that threaten his wheat including bad soil, sun, and sparrows (one of animals of the Four Pests Campaign the Mao created in order to kill these pest that threatened the grain). He cuts himself to mix his own blood with water to make the stalks grow bigger. He forgoes sleeping in his hut to guard his wheat from disaster and continues bloodletting until he is pale and too dizzy to walk back to his hut. His desperation is palpable when he thinks, “Instead I wanted to crawl back, and in the process show all of the wheat plants how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children’s sympathy.”

While the “higher-ups” demand unrealistic wheat production and steel production from the labor camps, the land is barren with no hope of producing food for the Re-Ed workers and starvation results. When it is clear that the Great Chinese Famine hit the rural provinces hardest, some Re-Ed districts were faced with incidents of cannibalism. When it occurs in the ninety-ninth, the Scholar brings it up to the Child:

“The Scholar stared at the Child and said, “But at the very least we can’t permit people to eat each other, right?”

The Child open the picture book he was holding to a page near the end, and said, “Early on, there was a devastating famine, and people died throughout the land. There was also an enormous flood in which nearly everyone drowned, and only Noah’s family survived.”


The satirical nature of the Author that Lianke employs in the beginning of the book slyly progresses to horror when the he realizes survival seems unlikely for anyone:

“I retreated to the middle of the room and told the Scholar not to look. The Scholar then walked over to the corpses lying on the innermost cot. As soon as he reached the bed, I recognized the two bodies that belonged to the Theologian and a young associate professor. The Theologian originally had not been on his bunk. Feeling flustered, I went over and pulled back the sheet covering the Theologian’s body, and immediately felt a wave of nausea run through me. The body had no arms or legs, instead merely his trunk was lying there, like a corpse that has been disinterred after many years. I quickly covered him again with the sheet before the Scholar could see it and retreated from the room. I squatted in the doorway and repeatedly dry-heaved, as thought there were a clump of putrid grass wedged in my throat.”


Lianke lays out the slow burn of this genocide by insidiously eliminating basic human rights and primal needs from each character. The only expression of sexual (which is forbidden) and romantic love happens between the Scholar and the young, pretty Musician. Ultimately, after being reported by the Author, they are brutally abused for their behavior and endure degrading behavior in order to obtain food for each other.

The realization that no matter how many red blossoms they collect, they are doomed to die without dignity or recognition. Loyalty to the Party is the highest goal which none of the criminals can ever achieve when the requirements are constantly changing.

It’s not simply that The Four Books should win because Lianke continues to challenge the tragedies of China’s past and their denial in the present of those tragedies, but because he represents the curiosity of a writer who refuses to let them be ignored. The Four Books, as well written and as devastating as it is, confronts history and the roles we play in it. It’s a powerful testament to the courage Lianke renders as the obligation of a writer. Shouldn’t more writers do this with each novel they write? The Four Books should win for the voice it gives to the millions who died without recognition, without acknowledgment that they even existed.

18 April 16

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

for miniature republic
parsimonious poems
          Engravings


The Djibouti writer Abdourahman Waberi’s name will be familiar to BTBA followers for his novel Transit, short-listed in 2013. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper is Waberi’s first collection of poetry and there is a palpable sense of urgency to these lean poems. Size, of course, is not a reliable indicator of impact or import. Waberi sees his small native land as part of the cradle of mankind, of homo erectus, to be exact. Here, humans first stood, first put one foot in front of the other, joining gesture, movement and breath into a kind of freedom. And it is that instant, that conjunction, that inspires Waberi to imagine man making “that first gesture in the bed of [his] pages.”

Writing poems, for Waberi, is “a matter of strictest necessity.” He sows these “modest pebbles” in readers’ paths, not to guide them—Waberi is suggestive, not prescriptive—but as markers to use in charting their own way to a meaningful life free from the tides of economic, financial, ecological, and spiritual excess that are washing over the world. “Another path of life is possible, apparent in the creases and folds of this collection.”

These spare poems are laconic but evocative, conjuring up desert landscapes, a nomadic tribe, or his small country’s struggles with civil war and extremism. He sees the wind as a calligrapher, covering the dunes with words.

brush in hand the wind sketches
landscapes of words
sculpted mountain slopes
shadow plains
horizon enclaves


This is a landscape that has witnessed much suffering, great and small. The Somali bullet,

. . . bloom of a new genus
that bans
all transports of joy
all shedding of tears in the name of love
drawn from the bittersweet milk of peace


is countered by a lame herdsman who laments

with my skinny legs
I’ve crossed vast desert sands
with my short strides
I’ve kept up with my camels’ pace
so why should I care
if my shrew of a wife slanders my name!


Unsparing in their frankness, Waberi’s poems are also finely attuned to the beauties and joys in a harsh landscape of “tortured geology” and happy simplicity. Waberi enjoins us to “let nomadic words live” for they, as much as any others, can open up new worlds and lead us to “the tree of knowledge [which] has wings to surpass the horizon.”

14 April 16

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Charlotte Whittle, translator, and editor at Cardboard House Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

Guadalupe Nettel’s unsettling autobiographical novel, which follows on the success of her story collection Natural Histories, recounts the disorienting childhood of a girl coming to terms with living in her own skin. From the psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator recalls a youth marked by trauma and displacement, and details the magnified perceptions and small-scale metamorphoses of her coming of age. The Body Where I Was Born is a story of a girl learning to inhabit a body, and of how the body inhabits its surroundings. In her exploration of this process of becoming, the author trains her gaze on the uncomfortable discoveries of youth many of us would prefer to forget. Nettel’s prose is elegant yet unadorned, and her translator, J.T. Lichtenstein, has preserved the book’s matter-of-fact and sometimes deadpan tone in her skillful rendering of the novel.

Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the young Guadalupe is subjected to a series of corrective treatments and forced to wear an eye patch the color of her skin. This gives her the uncanny appearance of having only one eye, making her classmates “curious and uncomfortable,” and initiating Guadalupe into her status as an outsider. The treatment regimen also involves exposure to black light: “for this, my parents built a wooden box that my small head fit into perfectly, then they lit it up. In the background, like a primitive cinemascope, drawings of animals went around and around: a deer, a turtle, a bird, a peacock.” The image anticipates Guadalupe’s withdrawal into her own world, where animals will become her protective totems.

In a defensive gesture, Guadalupe grows hunched and turns in on herself. Critical of her posture, her mother nicknames her “Cucaracha.” Partly as a result of this, Guadalupe comes to identify with the kingdom of insects, creatures that provoke the same mix of curiosity and revulsion she feels she causes in others. This process of identification reveals Nettel’s interest—also visible in Natural Histories—in the distasteful and beastly aspects of existence, those from which we might prefer to look away. Guadalupe’s cold, distant grandmother, with whom she is forced to live after her parents abandon her, banishes her from lunch “exactly how one might throw an undesirable insect outside so as to not have to squash it in front of guests.” Around the time of her first stirrings of sexual desire, Guadalupe sees in the mirror “something similar to the caterpillar found dead in my shoe.” Even as she discovers the latent potentialities of her young body, she creates an “alternative geography” for herself, recognizing that “I really did resemble the cockroaches that travel through the marginal spaces and buried pipes of buildings.” It is fitting then that Guadalupe reads Kafka, and recognizes her kinship with Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis: “Nowhere in the story does it say exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was, but I quickly gathered it was a cockroach. He had turned into one; I was one by maternal decree, if not by birth.” Guadalupe’s identification with the indestructible cockroach and with the ancient trilobite places her within a tribe of tough-shelled survivors.

While Guadalupe’s narrative is profoundly intimate and personal, it is also punctuated by far-reaching events that marked the era of her childhood. She grows up surrounded by members of the diaspora prompted by a series of Latin American dictatorships. Recalling the Villa Olímpica where she lived, built in 1968 to accommodate athletes and journalists attending the Olympics, Guadalupe associates it with the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco on the eve of that same event. And in 1985, she and her mother watch in shock as a Mexico City in ruins, after the earthquake that killed thousands, appears on the television in their living room in Aix-en-Provence.

A child of the 1970s, Guadalupe is subjected to experimental practices typical of the decade. She attends a Montessori school, and witnesses her parents’ flirtations with open relationships, communal living, and the predictive capacities of the I Ching. But despite their apparently liberated mindset, her parents are still conditioned by the mores of their own childhoods, and subject to curious blind spots and inconsistencies in their parenting ethos. When, after years of insisting that no truth should be withheld from their children, Guadalupe’s father disappears, it takes years for Guadalupe to discover the truth of his whereabouts.

One of the book’s most memorable episodes concerns the silent communication between Guadalupe and Ximena, daughter of exiles from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In a ritual of “marvelous symmetry” the two girls see each other from their windows and each recognizes the other in her isolation; they return to their respective windows night after night to quietly watch one another. It is as if each had found in the other a companion to share the quiet, intuited truths of their afflictions. But while Ximena sets fire to herself and escapes “once and for all from the cage of her life,” Guadalupe is already on her way to developing the cockroach-like carapace that will shield her.

The novel’s epigraph “I always wanted / to return / to the body / where I was born,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song” is borne out in the final sequence, in which the eye surgery Guadalupe’s mother has been planning is ultimately deemed unsafe: returning from the journey, Guadalupe accepts her body and the marks it bears, saying: “my eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently: . . . I decided to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.”

The Body Where I Was Born captures the alienation of a childhood spent in solitude, and is a powerful testimony of a woman claiming her agency and her place in the world. In its measured, incisive prose, the small incidents of adolescence carry as much weight as the global, political events that frame them. We are thus invited to witness the evolution of a hardened, resilient self that wears its wounds like stamps of survival: “these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.” Nettel’s complex, probing testimony of survival and Lichtenstein’s deft translation make The Body Where I Was Born a strong contender for the BTBA.