My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

I don’t like to think of myself as a reader with an agenda, but it would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to experience the world as a woman. Milkman by Anna Burns, the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, speaks directly to this issue. Milkman highlights the constant threat of violence all women live under and the fear and shame we experience when this violence turns from threat to reality. Though not limited to the experiences of women, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, an anthology edited by Roxane Gay, shows instead to how pervasive rape culture is and how hard it is to eradicate the vocabulary that minimises and normalises our experiences with harassment and assault. Essential reading for anyone who wants to feel less alone, and for those who perhaps fail to realise the omnipresence of rape culture.

To turn to lighter topics, I believe the highlight of my reading year was covering the Man Booker International for Asymptote. Two of my most beloved reads came from the prize’s shortlist. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, in Jennifer Croft’s magnificent translation, is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite book of 2018. It defies summarisation, it’s a collection of short stories, essays, and contemplative pieces about travel and the human body, connected more by its atmosphere than a larger theme. If I could try to describe it, it would be like this: have you ever been at an airport at four in the morning and felt as if there were a glitch in reality, that your reality had lost its linearity and you were floating in a space laced with something ethereal? That is exactly what reading Flights feels like.

The other standout read was Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith, another plotless book, half-poetry, half-meditation on life and the colour white. In all honesty, this year has been a revelation when it comes to Korean authors. I started the year with Min Jin Lee’s much-acclaimed Pachinko, an inter-generational story of a Korean family living in Japan that despite its 500+ pages took only two days to read. I finished my year with Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), a tale about the making of modern of South Korea and human loneliness that is a great example of how universal literature can be even with a more localised focus.

To wrap this up, I want to highlight also a few memoirs that have kindled my love for the genre. Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison L. Strayer) is ostensibly about Ernaux’s own life, but the narrative voice is a collective “we” that allows Ernaux to bypass her point of view and write a shared history of her generation, the French Boomers, from World War II to the present. The Years has some of the best opening pages I have ever read, a cascade of memories and phrases that Ernaux reminds us will one day perish like us, with us. “To exist is to drink yourself without thirst,” she contemplates. Who has not felt that way, at least once?

Speaking of collective memoirs, I had to interrupt my reading of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time (translated by Bela Shayevich) several times, mostly to ask my parents if what I was reading, this nostalgia for Communism, was something they experienced too, if any other Albanians felt that way. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, on the other hand, moves beautifully between the collective and the personal. The memoir is a revelatory and bittersweet account of the history and culture of a small elite of African American professionals living in the Midwest to which Jefferson belonged. Though most of the book is about the collective history of the group, Jefferson places herself as the reluctant protagonist and heiress to all this history and its contradictions. If Ernaux provided a superb beginning, Negroland has one of my favourite endings, a mantra for the future, so to speak. I return to it periodically:

“There are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine. You did it so badly, I think. You lost so much time. And then I tell myself, so what? So what? Go on.”

Here’s to another year of discovering and dismantling more wonderful books.

Barbara Halla is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania. Originally from Tirana, she currently resides in Paris, where she works as a freelance editor and translator for French, Italian, and Albanian. She holds a BA in History from Harvard.


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