Four Women Writers

I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota.  So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below.  However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion.  Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).

Claudia Golea Sumiya:  În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)

Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo.  Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime?  Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound.  In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and  this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions.  There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.

Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)

Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories.  The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads.  Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends.  The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas.  Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.

Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter

This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania.  The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents.  The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions.  Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.”  The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.  The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them.  A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.

Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run

Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep.  An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour.  In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy?  The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little.  The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed.  I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London.  Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?

 

Whatever Happened to … Tawara Machi?

Once a week I will wallow a bit in nostalgia and write a post about a favourite author (past or present), someone who really influenced me as I was growing up.  However, I won’t stick with the obvious choices such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and all the paraphernalia of the adolescent girl.   At least not at first.  Not until I run out of lesser-known writers, who deserve much wider recognition.  I may not feel quite the same about them now as I did during my adolescence, but I cannot deny they have contributed to me as I am (and write) now.  Today’s chosen author has a double significance, as she is Japanese.  What better way to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the Japanese people one year on from the earthquake and tsunami?

I discovered Tawara Machi while I was studying Japanese at university.  We were struggling to understand and translate the famous haiku and tanka poems written over a thousand or more years of Japanese literary history, so our teacher introduced us to the contemporary poet Tawara Machi.  A young school teacher and translator of classic Japanese waka poetry, she is credited with single-handedly reviving the tanka form, which had fallen out of fashion compared to its shorter, flashier cousin, the haiku.  In less than six months, her 1987 debut volume of poetry entitled ‘Sarada no kinenbi’ (Salad Anniversary) sold nearly 3 million copies in Japan and gave birth to the so-called ‘salad phenomenon’ of a young writer being crowned as rock star, TV celebrity and serious intellectual all at the same time.

A few nights ago I was searching for a book of poetry to read before bedtime and I cam across an English translation of ‘Salad Anniversary’ by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Kodansha International in 1989.   I probably hadn’t opened it in 10-15 years, and perhaps you need to read it as a young person to fully savour the somewhat whimsical and very personal ruminations of a young woman in love.  Yet, once again, these short poems captivated me with their freshness, intimacy, flashes of inspiration. Some have objected that Juliet Carpenter’s translations are a bit too sparse and dry (you can find an exploration of alternative translations here), but I find they capture the succinct charm of the original, and the spirit of that everyday observation that suddenly reminds us of the universal.

I became curious: what had happened to Tawara Machi?  Was she ever able to live up to her early reputation? Well, after quite a bit of digging around on websites of the world, I have discovered the following:

She sold more than 7 million copies of her first poetry book worldwide – almost unheard of for a volume of poetry, let alone a debut volume by a poet writing in a language not widely spoken all around the world.  Somehow, she survived the furore and stayed remarkably sane.  She stopped teaching two years or so after her fabulous success and became a full-time writer, while also hosting her own TV and radio shows, translating from the Japanese classics, being a judge on tanka poetry competitions and so on.  She has published several other volumes of poetry, including one entitled ‘Pooh’s Nose’ (after the birth of her child) and ‘Street Corner of Capitalism’ (about economic stagnation and urban alienation).  You can see and hear her reading some of her recent poems on YouTube. (translations are below in the comments section), or access Quentin S Crisp’s lovely readings of his translations of her poetry as part of a Soutbank Centre project back in 2007.

I am relieved that the story has a happy ending, that her early success (and incredible pressure on her to top that) has not killed off her creativity.  She may never again achieve that cult status, but the quality of her poetry, most critics agree, remains high.  I just think it’s a pity that she is not more widely known outside Japan, although I have to admit so much of Japanese poetry (both classic and contemporary) is extremely difficult to translate, because of its allusive, elliptical nature and constant self-references.

Here are some of my favourite poems by her:

‘Call again,’ you say and hang up/ I want to call again right now.

Late afternoon/ you and I gaze at the same thing /as between us something ends.

Like getting up to leave a hamburger place/ that’s how I’ll leave / that man.

Now that I wait for you no more,/ sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays / are all the same to me.

To live is to reach out your hand/ The baby’s hand/ grabs Pooh’s nose.

Today a voice has joined his smile/ like a black and white film/ changing to colour.

A certain street corner of capitalism/ The tissues one accepts and receives when needed.

(the last with thanks to From Tokyo to the World, spreading the word for Japanese culture)