Posts filed under 'women'

Celestial Troubles: Love and Transition in Oman

In Celestial Bodies, Alharthi takes us on a bewildering journey that is both specific to Oman and relatable in its experiences.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.

The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society. READ MORE…

Desire and Rebirth: Armonía Somers’ The Naked Woman in Review

Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men.

The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude, Feminist Press, 2018.

What could freedom from the pressures and expectations of society mean for a woman in Uruguay in the 1950s, and what might the impact of this freedom be on others? These questions are explored by Uruguayan author, scholar, and feminist Armonía Somers in The Naked Woman. Written in 1950, this is the first of Somers’ books to be translated into English. The novel tells an energetic and enthralling story through which Somers articulates a pressing need in society for people to find ways to escape prescribed roles, express desire, and renew one’s sense of self. The narrative focuses on the experience of the female protagonist, Rebeca Linke, and sheds light on the repressive context of 1950s Uruguay when, according to scholar Maria Olivera-Williams, “middle-class social mores proved particularly suffocating to women.” Somers explores the effects of these constraints on women and creates a subversive protagonist who creatively and successfully challenges these expectations by allowing herself to release her natural instincts and understand new forms of intimacy. Whilst the female experience is the focus of the book, Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men. She achieves this by depicting male violence against women and the harmful effects of a lack of freedom of choice.

The Naked Woman begins with Rebeca Linke’s revelation of the failed hopes that she had pinned on her thirtieth birthday. This sense of disillusionment is the driving force behind her decision to abandon her everyday existence and move to the countryside: she is desperate to break the daily monotony of her life, to embrace freedom and to live in the present. She takes a train to a small cottage in a remote part of the Uruguayan countryside where she casts off her one remaining item of clothing, her coat, having abandoned everything else. As a result, her break with the past and her commitment to the here and now becomes urgent: “[s]he was beholden to the present, like water held in the palm of a hand.” When she ventures out into the night, she is immersed in a natural environment that she has never before experienced so intimately. This then extends to her own body: she discovers its uniqueness by touching it and she remarks upon changes that she had not previously noted. It is Somers’ focus on the present, the protagonist’s physical experience of each moment, and the centrality of the female body that make the book so compelling, exciting and enticing for readers today.

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In Review: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

This work remains both a feminine artifact and a testimony of a uniquely female experience.

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.

Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.

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In Conversation: Rita Stirn

My book seeks to understand how women manage to become musicians in Morocco.

Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?

Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.

I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.

Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are again with literary updates from around the world. This week we bring you news on cultural responses to the earthquakes in Mexico and the latest on indigenous writers via Editors-At-Large for Mexico Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn. UK-based Executive Assistant Cassie Lawrence brings us up to speed on the latest from the UK, including recent prizes and publications. Finally, contributor Julia Chien and Editor-At-Large for Taiwan Vivian Szu-Chin Chih discuss the latest poetry and film initiatives in Taiwan.

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-At-Large, Mexico:

This week on Thursday, October 12, the 17th Annual Book Fair opened in México City’s Zócalo (main square downtown), and will run through October 22. As reported by Mexico’s Cultural Secretary, under the hashtag #CulturaSolidaria, the event will explore the role that the arts and culture play in rebuilding a city devastated by the September 19 earthquake that took over two hundred lives and left parts of the city in ruins.

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On The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite by Yemeni Novelist Mohammed “Al-Gharby” Amran Followed by an Interview with the Author

There is only one voice and it is the voice of violence.

The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.

Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets[1] (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.

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A Moveable Feast: A Year of Reading Women in Translation

In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked.

This August marked the third anniversary of #WomenInTranslation month, a much-needed attempt to redress the balance between male and female authors within translated fiction. In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked by publishers. The numbers paint a rather depressing picture, since according to Three Percent’s database, translated literature makes up approximately 3 percent of the literature published in English-speaking markets, and women make up a fraction of that — a mere 30 percent, or 0.9 percent of the literature that makes it to stores.

In this respect, #WIT Month is a fantastic way of highlighting women’s voices through the power of social media – demonstrating that not only are these books read, but that there is a large audience with a voracious appetite for literature in translation penned (and translated) by women. But I suspect that, like many others, once the dust has settled and we roll into Fall, my reading habits fall back into routine. The culture industry reflects the character of the society that it markets to, and the fact remains that it is considerably harder for women to get their work to appear to English than their male counterparts. If the problem is to achieve any sort of resolution, #WIT Month needs to first inspire a recognition of the gender biases within the industry and reading habits at large, and to introduce readers to women authors that end up being overlooked or that they might not otherwise have heard of — in short, WIT Month should become a moveable feast.

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All Our True Stories: Feminist Language Diversity and Accessibility

On translating (and preserving) threatened women's stories—through image, sound, and text.

“So she’s asking the husband what his favorite vegetable is. And she’s cooking it for him,” a male teacher in Banswara District, Rajasthan is telling me in his home. I peer down at my notes. By the end of the session, I’ve realized a peculiarity: the lines he’s given me for the song being translated—grinning all the while—number far fewer than my lines of lyrics. A discrepancy calling for a more concerted effort, more translators, more women to tell their own tales.

Around this time last year, I was recording and just beginning to be enraptured by Bori Village women’s song-stories in Vagdi, an oral language under threat. As part of the EQUILIBRIUM artist’s residency at Sandarbh, working with women’s self-help economic groups as equals to create new artistic contexts, six songs were recorded by my friends from Bori in a studio—what became “The 12 Acres EP”—transcribed into Vagdi, then translated into English and Hindi, with the help of colleagues. The end goal, however, was to make these songs come to life in a wordless world, a picture book melange of visual imagery. READ MORE…