Women Writers in Translation (And Violent Males)

Four European books about male violence

One of the knocks—and yes, I know it’s not the only one—against Dalkey Archive’s recent lists is that there’s a severe lack of women, especially in translation. This article I wrote back in 2019 provides a solid overview of the situation as a whole (Spoiler: It’s not even close to equitable!), but, according to the Translation Database (the data for which may be skewed given all the announced, yet never published, Dalkey titles), from 2008-2021, Dalkey published 63 translations by women and 250 by men. Just over 20% of their translations were written by women.

It would be easy to lament this, to highlight the inequity, the messages found in the more traditionally male writers Dalkey has published on the regular, but that’s an article for a different time. Instead, given that March 8th was International Women’s Day and April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I would rather take a positive approach and look at some of the books by women that John did publish, and what linkages can be made.

And to be fair, Dalkey has some incredible women writers on its list: Anne Carson, Svetlana Alexievich, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Marguerite Young, Rikki Ducornet, Ann Quin, Dubravka Ugresic, Michelle Marcom, Gabrielle Burton (whose Heartbreak Hotel I’m dying to reread), and many others.

I suspect that every editor—consciously or sub—has a set of elements that they’re immediately drawn to, that bump a book up the “to read” pile. Books that are read with rose-colored glasses because they conform to an idea of writing that the editor/publisher values.

One of the main tenets of Dalkey Archive’s aesthetic was an emphasis on form over substance. The telling, the style, was always more important to John than the plot. (Something that can feel mighty out of synch with today’s book culture and the titles receiving the most super-hyped accolades. Which is fine. John was never one for trends or trendiness.) And, given the mythology he created about his own personal history, John loved books about failed or failing relationships. “Happy relationships are all alike, unhappy relationships are unhappy in their own way.”

It’s not just marriages falling apart, though that interested John, it was bad relationships told through a particular sort of distanced, sarcastic, scathing voice. At least when it came to books by women. The writing by men about relationships imploding that he was most drawn to was more of the self-effacing, uber-pathetic variety. (See basically any of the “Letters to the Editor” he anonymously wrote over the years, or, well, his novel. Yes, novel. More on that later.)

The four books—all by women—that I read for this post fit into that same sort of rubric, but from the p.o.v. of females stuck in relationships with stunted, disgusting, abusive, self-involved males.

These books are glorious in their aggression, in their quest for liberation, in their unforgiving nature. All four of these women deserve to be widely read—especially for the ways in which they unapologetically break conventions and dismantle social norms.

Let’s start with Rumena Bužarovska’s My Husband (published a lifetime ago in January 2020), translated from the Macedonian by Paul Filev. Along with Lidija Dimkovska’s two books of poetry, Bužarovska is the only other female Macedonian writer to be translated into English since 2008.

Bužarovska was featured in The Calvert Journal last December for her role in bringing the #MeToo movement to Macedonia, and highlights just how badass and amazing she is as a writer and activist.

“You are taught as a woman to always be nice, and you get taken advantage of because of it. I cringe when I think of the things I’ve endured,” says Bužarovska. “I’ve been nice my entire life, but I’m not nice anymore.” Writing these stories is more than catharsis. “It is revenge,” she says.

But her books go beyond personal dilemmas. Though her characters don’t think better things are possible, Bužarovska does. This implicit subtext in her stories was front and centre when she helped to bring the #MeToo movement to North Macedonia. The campaign started with Bužarovska and six of her friends inviting around 100 women “to all share an experience of sexual harassment with the hashtag ‘segakažuvam’ which means ‘I speak up now’”. “It was not about names, it was not about having one single culprit, but pointing out that this is a systemic problem,” the writer says. The women shared their stories on social media at the same time, on the same day, and the hashtag quickly went viral, inspiring others to speak out. “It hit really seriously,” Bužarovska says. “It was great because it wasn’t just the same feminists who always talk about these things — all these other women joined in too.”

My Husband is exactly the sort of book that should be on all the “Read Women in Translation” lists. It’s fierce. It’s uncompromising. It depicts men in such honest, stark ways. Their ridiculousness, their way of turning flaws into defensive violence. And it’s funny. It’s the first book I read in 2021 that I truly loved. In fact, I loved it so much, I made many, many of my friends listen to me read the opening of “Nectar,” a story about halfway through the book that totally encapsulates Bužarovska snarky, dagger-sharp voice.

Although a lot of these stories are hard to read—given the horrific violence and general trappings of the patriarchy—I can’t recommend this enough. The voice is thrilling and immediately engaging. Which makes sense: voice was another thing John was obsessed with. And a similar sort of voice can be found in the forthcoming Gentlemen Callers by Corine Hoex, translated from the French by Caitlin O’Neil, and, to a lesser extent, in Public Reading Followed by Discussion by Danielle Mémoire, translated from the French by K. E. Gormley. I honestly don’t know how much John was reading at the end of his life, but he had a radar for these sorts of voices. Here are a handful of opening lines from the stories in My Husband:

“Every time Nenad did something bad, Gene would blame someone in my family, usually my grandfather. ‘It’s in the genes,’ he’d say. ‘There’s no escaping your genes.’” (“Genes”)

“Although he’s a gynecologist, my husband tries to make out he’s an artist.” (“Nectar”)

“It’s uncertain how much longer my husband will remain an ambassador. He may be recalled or have to resign because of me. Of course, this is not something we talk about.” (“A Creature of Habit”)

“My husband is a true gentleman. A rarity these days.” (“Saturday, Five in the Afternoon”)

“Lily was not a pretty child. I’d known that ever since she was born.” (“Lily”)

“None of this would have happened if we hadn’t met Irena at the restaurant that night.” (“The Eighth of March”)

And yes, there is another book of her stories on its way. Bužarovska is what the world needs now.

The next book, Amanda Michalopoulou’s God’s Wife, translated from the Greek by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, is another book about a bad husband—in this case, God.

I can’t remember how it came to us, but the first book of Michalopoulou’s to be published in English was I’d Like, which was one of Karen Emmerich’s first translations. That collection of stories fits into the Impossible Object side of Dalkey; a collection in which characters become narrators, in which things almost fit together logically, in which metafiction is a given and a game and a freedom.

“The thirteen short stories that make up Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like read like versions of an unwritten novel: each riveting tale resonates with the others, and yet a sense of their connectedness remains tantalizingly out of grasp.”

(A favorite game of mine is to try and figure out which Dalkey employee—self included—wrote the bones of various book’s jacket copy. I do know for certain that Roubaud’s Hortense books are pure me. “Buttocks” is a dead giveaway.)

Why I Killed My Best Friend (also translated by Karen Emmerich) was Michalopoulou’s English-language follow-up, and was published by Open Letter. It came out around the time of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, has similar themes, and is definitely worth reading.

Her latest, God’s Wife, is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a letter, a novel, a piece of writing from a woman who married God. Yes, that God. Well . . . kind of that God.

For being praised as the “all-loving,” this God is pretty crap at being a husband. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s pretty crap at being a human. Which, joking/not-joking, explains a lot about the baked-in inequities of our world.

From the potentially blasphemous to the vulgar . . .

The front cover of Vedrana Rudan’s first novel to appear in English featured a hairy testicle on an elongated tongue with a drop of saliva at its tip.

This was a book I was built to edit.

The translator, award-winning Celia Hawkesworth, told me that she wasn’t all that good at swearing, and that Rudan used tons of different filthy insults, curses, unprintable words. And that I should feel free to alter any and all curse words in the manuscript to be as varied and vulgar as I wanted.

Love at Last Sight was translated by award-winning Ellen Elias-Bursać and came out in 2017 and is as fierce, as blistering, as I had hoped it would be.

This book can be hard to read at times—Rudan doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of domestic violence in its most physical form—but, my god, her voice! It’s not quite Louis-Ferdinand Céline in its non-stop assault of images, chugging along without a rest, but it’s very close. Here’s a bit from when the narrator of Love at Last Sight (who is dead and being judged for killing her husband) vacations with her lover:

My lover’s prick enters my body, there in that hotel room. He didn’t shower, my husband was right. A dirty prick entered my body, he wanted to wash, I couldn’t wait. Before I came, it hit me, my husband knows me better than I know myself. He knows that a stranger’s prick would, sooner or later, slip into his hole. While I was coming, I thought, if he really loves me, then he’s glad we’re fucking so nice, so nice, so niiiiiiiice! I laughed. [. . .] What do I remember? Taking a shit was a huge problem for me in our shared toilet in such a way that he wouldn’t hear or smell it, the toilet had no window. Agony, such agony! I didn’t move my bowels till I got home. [. . .] My lover didn’t have these problems. He went into the bathroom. I perked up my ears to hear how soundless he might try to be. It took no effort. He farted as though there were no flimsy door between, he shat as if he were on a deserted island, he didn’t flush the toilet while he was relieving himself, he didn’t spray the room with my hair spray when he finished, he didn’t lower the toilet seat, men are so much more relaxed.

(God, I wish I could’ve worked with Ellen and Vedrana on this book!)

Ellen Elias-Bursać’s afterword to this book is worth the price of admission:

Rudan’s defiance of political correctness, her intent to offend, do their job. Her writing does offend. It’s her exploration of feelings and experiences we thought we knew that nudges us to see them differently. This is what makes her books worth reading.

Last, but not least, is Lydie Salvayre. The first Salvayre book to be translated into English was The Award, done by Jane Davey and published by (the now defunct) Four Walls Eight Windows. It’s another book of voice—of voices—taking place at a ceremony for an automobile manufacturer. In between creepy corporate speak from the M.C., different award-winning employees take the microphone, and tend to babble forth their life stories. And, as can be expected, most of their lives didn’t turn out how they had hoped.

Here’s an extended reading of some parts from The Award:

Although Salvayre’s most recent book, Cry, Mother Spain, came out from MacLehose Press, she’s primarily been a Dalkey author. Thanks to all the catnip provided by The Award—failing at a life worth nothing, the channeling of different voices, dark existential humor, hatred of corporations and their impact on language—and Warren Motte’s recommendation, we published a number of her books: The Lecture, The Company of Ghosts, Everyday Life, and The Power of Flies.

My favorite Salvayre story is about when she came to the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, PEN World Voices was the only literary festival in the U.S. that shone a light on international writers. Although economics sent things sideways, this festival was, for a few years at least, one of the largest gatherings of international authors in the world. (I’ll come back to these days some newsletters from now, when it’s time to talk about faux-mystery novels and Patrík Ouredník.)

I have no understanding of French, and Lydie spoke no English, which made our time together very gleeful. If I understand right, she really likes hula-hooping—and/or was a competitive hula-hooping champion?—and her husband, who was also her publisher, “faked” a heart attack so that he could get out of flying to New York with her.

A French woman, “alone,” in New York is the set-up of the most recent Salvayre title from Dalkey—Portrait of the Writer As a Domesticated Animal.

The voice behind this book is a young writer who agrees to write the biography of the “Hamburger King,” a fast-food corporate hedge-fund sort of bro who is as awful as you expect rank capitalism to be. She struggles to write the book, to tell the story he wants told of himself.

Although it can veer into parody at times by picking out the most egregious and obvious aspects of shitty male uber-capitalism, the depiction of an Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos cum hamburger king is pretty on point.

And more than anything, this book sent me back to my Salvayre origins. To The Award and the excitement of these too-honest, angry for the right reasons, sort of voices.

Coming Soon: An editorial trip to Amsterdam and Antwerp, and a look at Dalkey’s tomes.