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Our Favorite International Reads from 2019 (and What We’ll Be Reading in 2020)

By Words Without Borders


As the year draws to a close, our staff, contributors, and board members share their favorite works-in-translation of 2019 and the titles they’re looking forward to in 2020.

 

Eric M. B. Becker
Editor

To pick a favorite read is well near impossible, so I’d like to suggest a book that is both excellent and timely: Eliane Brum’s The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections (Graywolf Press), translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty. This is Grosklaus Whitty’s first book-length literary translation, and her English is wonderfully attentive to the rhythms of Brum’s Portuguese. Brum’s reportage takes initiates and old hands alike through an array of Brazil’s disadvantaged, disaffected, and indomitable from deep within the Amazon forest to São Paulo to the shadow of the mammoth Belo Monte hydroelectric project. Avoiding the pitfalls that plague much reportage of this type, Brum allows her subjects to speak for themselves. (Read an excerpt from The Collector of Leftover Souls)

As for 2020, I’m eagerly awaiting Carmen Boullosa's The Book of Anna (Coffee House Press), translated by WWB founding editor Samantha Schnee. Employing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a jumping-off point—and placing Anna Karenina’s son, Sergei, in the thick of the action—Boullosa (whom Bolaño called “Mexico’s greatest woman writer”) recasts the Russian revolution. This is the second Boullosa–Schnee book-length collaboration. Given that their first (Texas: The Great Theft) was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Translation Prize, I’m looking forward to reading this new work. (Read an excerpt from Texas: The Great Theft)

 

 

Tobias Carroll
Watchlist Editor

Few books got under my skin in 2019 the way Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter (tr. Eduardo Aparicio, University of Texas Press) did. Were it simply a meditation on memory, loss, and the way historical crimes can become part of the atmosphere, that would have been enough. But the ways in which the narrative blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction ultimately adds to its thematic resonance; this is a novel that refuses to be easily dismissed as fiction, and it may well prompt some readers to wonder about their own compromises and complicities. (Read fiction by Rodrigo Rey Rosa)

As for books due out in 2020? Xia Jia’s A Summer Beyond Your Reach definitely piqued my interest. The handful of her stories I’ve read in translation have impressed me, and as a huge admirer of science fiction that takes a turn into the surreal, I’m very eager to sit down with a full-length collection of her work. The collection is forthcoming with Clarkesworld Books, with translations by Ken Liu, Emily Jin, and Carmen Yiling Yan.

 

 

Jessie Chaffee
WWB Daily Editor

One of my favorite reads this year was Linda Boström Knausgård’s Welcome to America (tr. Martin Aitken, World Editions). At the story’s center is Ellen, an eleven-year-old girl who refuses to speak after her prayer for her father to die comes true. As Ellen’s silence grows into something larger than herself, she begins to wonder if it is in some way “the truth. The truth about me.” The novel is a stunning, visceral, and intimate portrait of grief, family, mental illness, and a young woman’s remarkable will and strength in the wake of trauma. (Read a review of Welcome to America)

I’ve been eager to read Jessica Schiefauer’s Girls Lost (tr. Saskia Vogel, Deep Vellum) since WWB excerpted it several years ago. In this YA-crossover thriller, three teen girls who have been the victims of verbal and physical abuse drink the nectar of a flower that transforms them into boys. Shiefauer captures the experience of adolescence with striking immediacy and complexity as she explores vital issues of gender and power.


 

Miguel Conde
Book Review Editor

I have just read Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood, the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy recently published in English by Penguin, and was struck by its fierceness and lyrical force (this volume and the second are translated by Tiina Nunnally; Michael Favala Goldman translated the final volume). Ditlevsen was forty-nine when the book first came out in Denmark in 1967, but she wrote most of the book in the present tense, as if reenacting each event in her mind and then quickly jotting it down—it’s less a memoir, I would say, than a sort of diary written in hindsight. It’s often painful to read as the family struggles to live on unemployment money and Ditlevsen’s parents deride her precocious ventures into poetry writing. In 1920s Copenhagen, this was something that educated adult men were supposed to occupy themselves with, not little girls from a working-class background. “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin and you can’t get out of it on your own,” Ditlevsen writes at one point. Although she eventually emerged from her own domestic drama to become one of the most beloved poets in her country, Childhood is written with a candor and vividness that suggest that Ditlevsen never really left behind the feeling of helplessness and entrapment from those early years. 

Brazilian novelist Graciliano Ramos used to compare his own writing to the work of the women laundresses in his home state of Alagoas: he strived to emulate, he said, their zeal in soaking and wringing each piece of clothing many times over before hanging it out to dry. I’m curious to see what Padma Viswanathan’s translation of his novel São Bernardo for NYRB makes of Ramos’s uncompromising style.

 

 

Lori Feathers
Best of the B-Sides Editor

How could 2019 be other than great when a new novel by French writer Marie NDiaye (and translated by Jordan Stump, no less!) finds its way to the US?  NDiaye’s latest, The Cheffe (Knopf), demonstrates once again that she is among the most astonishing and brilliant writers of our time. The novel’s titular character is a poor girl from rural France who rises to become one of her country’s greatest chefs. The narrator is her young apprentice, a man whose feelings for the cheffe grow from admiration to obsession. The apprentice’s memories of his culinary tutelage are interspersed with his own invective against his mentor’s selfish daughter and his misgivings about an anticipated visit by his own estranged child. NDiaye trademarks in creating a palpable sense of foreboding—her imagery unsettles, her pacing provokes, and her sensuous writing produces a vertiginous atmosphere. If you’ve never read NDiaye, you must, and this is a great place to start.

Looking to 2020, I’m thrilled that The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, a native of Georgia who writes in both her mother tongue and in German, will be published by Scribe US in April. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of the book (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin) a few months ago, and it is an epic—a magnificent, sprawling family saga that captures the suffering and pride of the Georgian people throughout the tumult of the twentieth century. The writing is rich and the characters full-blooded. Simply put, The Eighth Life is Georgia’s Gone with the Wind.

 

 

Susannah Greenblatt
Digital Marketing & Communications Coordinator

I first heard Giuseppe Caputo read from An Orphan World in the fall of 2017. In the past two years I’ve forgotten plenty things—doctor’s appointments, keys, etc.—but not the grit and glow of Caputo’s prose. An Orphan World, out from Charco Press, follows a father and son who are down on their luck in a coastal Colombian town. The whimsy and depth of their relationship are not punctured but rather elevated by the homophobic violence around them, which comes to a head just as the son grows into his own sexuality through the queer nightlife scene. The translation, by Juana Adcock and Sophie Hughes, breathes with a life of its own. (Read an excerpt from An Orphan World)

In 2020, I’m looking forward to María Sonia Cristoff’s Include Me Out, translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver and out with Transit Books in February. I was so taken with Cristoff’s False Calm, a lyrical and research-driven chronicling of Patagonian ghost towns, that I’m almost unconcerned that Include Me Out seems to center on horse embalming.

 

 

Susan Harris
Editorial Director

I loved Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (Riverhead Books). Tokarczuk’s complex yarn—murder mystery, environmental protest, feminist fable, ode to nicknames—and its singular narrator are brought to vivid life in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s dazzling translation. I don’t know when I’ve felt a translator and a book were so perfectly matched. (Read an excerpt from Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead)

We’re always delighted when a book from which we’ve published an excerpt is picked up by an English-language publisher. Our June 2016 Queer issue presented a section of Mu Cao’s Outcast, translated by Scott E. Myers, in which a runaway turned hustler finds solace with an older man. Now titled In the Face of Death We Are Equal, this revelatory portrait of working-class gay men on the fringes of Chinese society will appear next year in Seagull’s new Pride List.  

 

 

Nadia Kalman
Editor & Curriculum Designer of WWB Campus

In 2019, I read The Penguin Book of Migration Literature, edited by St. John’s University professor Dohra Ahmad and featuring work that spans continents, centuries, and genres. As Hannah Weber points out in her review, which ran last month in the magazine, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature features relatively few translated texts—a potential shortcoming. However, this self-described “subjective and massively incomplete” anthology is well worth reading for the bracing and sometimes subversive critical perspective that guides Ahmad’s curation. For example, although the book is organized into sections that seem to describe stages in the story of migration—departures, arrivals, generations, and returns—Ahmad encourages readers to see the ways in which the texts themselves push back against the idea of a single linear narrative. Among the translated works is a fantastic poem from Dunya Mikhail, entitled “Another Planet.” 

In 2020, I look forward to reading Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures, by Max Weber, translated from the German by Damion Searls and forthcoming from NYRB Classics. The title seems to offer a way into understanding our historical moment as well as the era during which Weber was delivering the lectures, a full century ago.

 

 

Jennifer Lauren
NYC Outreach Coordinator, WWB Campus

In 2020, I’m looking forward to reading a 2019 book I haven’t yet gotten to—The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino (Europa Editions), written by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell. It’s been a pleasure to learn about Allison’s approach to translating literature, which I discovered from WWB Campus, Words Without Borders’s resource for schools and educators. 

I also look forward to reading a lot works by female writers of the past and present, such as The Last Libertines by Benedetta Craveri (tr. Aaron Kerner, New York Review Books) and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions). And with my toddler daughter, I’m planning to read My Valley (written and illustrated by Claude Ponti and translated from French by Alyson Waters), which was published in 2017 by Elsewhere Editions but is on our shelf for 2020. The large size of the book and its lush illustrations seem appealing for winter afternoon reading, and I like to support small nonprofit publishers when I can.  

 

 

Francesca Pellas
Contributing Writer

One thing that made me very happy in 2019 was the US publication of the novel Beyond Babylon by Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego, a gift I have to thank Two Lines Press and translator Aaron Robertson for (Robertson was recently long-listed for the PEN America Translation Award for his translation). Composed of stories that unfold through Italy, Somalia, and Argentina, Beyond Babylon follows two Italian half-sisters who meet coincidentally in Tunisia, where they both went to learn Arabic, as well as their mothers and the Somali father who ties them all together. Coming from a country like Italy myself, where the road to an inclusive and diverse society is still a long one, I couldn’t be happier to see one of our best young writers translated into English. It has been said that Igiaba Scego makes young Italians of African descent proud to be Afro-Italian, but I think that’s reductive, to say the least: she makes all of us white Italians proud to be Italians too. (Read nonfiction by Igiaba Scego)

A book that I’m more than looking forward to seeing in US bookstores in 2020 is the memoir La Straniera (provisional title: The Stranger) by the magnificent writer Claudia Durastanti, who is also an important translator (she’s currently translating Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous into Italian). La Straniera came out in Italy in 2019 and was short-listed for the Strega Prize, the country’s most important literary award. It will be published in the US by Riverhead in 2020 (or in early 2021), in a translation by Elizabeth HarrisLa Straniera is the story of Durastanti’s life, and also a deep and vibrant reflection on language and the ways in which we can carve out our own paths toward self-discovery. Born to Italian parents in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1984, she spent the first six years of her life with her big Italian-American family. When her parents separated, Claudia’s mother took her and her brother to rural Southern Italy, where she lived until she moved to Rome for college and, later, to London. La Straniera is like a punch to the stomach, but a blow made of subterranean, blinding light. I’m very excited at the thought that American readers will soon be able to experience work by this talented writer.

 

 

Nina Perrotta
Editorial Fellow

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s A Girl Returned, translated by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, was one of my favorite books of 2019. The novel begins in 1975, when the thirteen-year-old protagonist, raised as the only child of an affluent couple, is suddenly sent back to her lower-class birth family. Like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, A Girl Returned is built on female relationships, the currents of resentment and tenderness that run between mothers, daughters, and sisters. Ann Goldstein’s translations never fail to blow me away, and the expressive power of her prose is on full display in Di Pietrantonio’s English-language debut.

One of the top books on my 2020 list is Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, translated by Katie Whittemore and forthcoming from Open Letter in May. A finalist for Spain’s Herralde Prize, this novel about a sinister boarding school is shaping up to be one of next year’s most compelling and disturbing works of fiction in translation.

 

 

Kalpana Raina
Board Member

One of my all-time favorites this year was Ambai’s A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström and published by Archipelago Books. This edition is the first time Ambai has been published in the United States. A well-known feminist writer in Tamil, Ambai (the pen name for C. S. Lakshmi) is also a researcher in women’s studies. A Kitchen in the Corner of the House is a selection of some of her best-known and experimental works dealing with the lives of ordinary women in South India. Ambai succeeds in capturing the complex emotional textures that underlie the courage, resilience, and beauty of ordinary lives. Her characters are constantly negotiating tradition and modernity as they search for their own unique identity.

I have just started to read, and will be reading into the new year, Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Riverhead Books. As one reviewer said, “Flights is epic in its scope and mission… [The novel] reads as a sprawling, surreal, meditation on what it is to be alive in an increasingly transient world.” The book is a daunting but hypnotic collection of fiction and essays and will keep me occupied for a while. My New Year’s resolution is to read more of Tokarczuk’s work. But I also have an eye out for Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (Catapult), translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth(Read an excerpt from Celestial Bodies)

 

 

Samantha Schnee
Founding Editor & Chairman of the Board

My son is a freshman in high school this year and the first title of his English curriculum was, of course, Homer’s The OdysseyWhile he read the assigned Fagles translation, I devoured Emily Wilson’s new rendering, published last year by W. W. Norton & Company. Her introduction alone is a masterpiece; her thoughtfulness and attention to detail make this translation a revelation. I wish it had been around when I was in high school. (Read an interview with Emily Wilson)

The New Press has commissioned a book of essays by Mexican writers entitled Let's Talk about Your Wall, which will be edited by Carmen Boullosa and Alberto Quintero and published in September in time for the election. Contributors range from journalists (Rene Delgado) to writers (Juan Villoro) to philosophers (Carlos Pereda) and more; each essay elucidates an aspect of the much-ballyhooed wall, such as the fact that, due to the agreement between the US and Mexico this summer, which requires Mexico to heavily police its southern border, it’s even less useful than it was as a campaign strategy. 

 

 

Rebecca Servadio
Board Member

This year I enjoyed Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (tr. Morgan Giles), published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in the US with Riverhead Books. (Read an excerpt from Tokyo Ueno Station)

Through my work as a literary scout, I was able to read another favorite—the forthcoming La Straniera by the massively talented Italian writer Claudia Durastanti. Subtle, profound, and remarkably light-footed, La Straniera (to be published by Riverhead in the US) engages with semantics, how to live, and how to find meaning in life. Durastanti illuminates and recalibrates movement, the hunger for vitality and lived experience, identity, liminality, the idea of a singular origin or an origin story as a linear thread toward self-determination, empathy, connectivity, and belonging. The book is also a remarkable tribute to the complexity of emotion at the heart of both maternal force and maternal love. Last but not least is a rediscovered modern classic, L’ultima estate in città (The Last Summer in the City) by Gianfranco Calligarich, which was originally published in Italy in 1973. Italian press Bompiani republished this cult success, and it will be coming to the English-speaking world with FSG in the US and Picador in the UK. It is sharp, powerful, and ultimately devastating.  

 

 

Douglas Unger
Board Member & Education Chair of WWB Campus

Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping is the book that most sticks with me, so much so that I wrote a high-praise comment for Columbia University Press. I was drawn to Wang Anyi’s writing initially because of her now classic Song of Everlasting Sorrow, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, which focuses on one upper-middle-class woman’s life and difficulties because of her choices to assert her sexual freedom and determine her destiny. Fu Ping can be considered a kind of companion by contrasts for its beautiful evocation of Shanghai’s vast underclass. It tells the story of an impoverished, orphaned girl’s coming of age by first instinctively then more consciously choosing her independence from social and peer pressures to shape her own identity. In his review of the book for WWB, Benjamin Woodward praised its richly drawn working-class characters living during China’s cultural revolution and after. Written in musical sentences and deftly translated by Howard Goldblatt, Fu Ping continues Wang Anyi’s enduring literary song to her city of Shanghai—which includes novels, stories, and films created over twenty-five years—and further establishes her as one of the world’s great writers. 

Another welcome arrival this year is A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, translated by Katherine Silver (Archipelago Books), a long-overdue collection by the Uruguayan master, and one I’ve been anticipating since the publication of Daniel Balderston’s translation of Goodbyes and Stories (University of Texas Press) in the early 1990s. I haven’t yet read the entire 560 pages of A Dream Come True but rather am savoring the stories one by one. Juan Carlos Onetti should be considered alongside Borges, Cortázar, and Sábato for his existentialist innovations and evocations of mystery. He is a virtuoso at the short-short and flash fiction as well as longer tales and stories. The novella “Death and the Girl” is a crime noir masterpiece; and “The Tale of Rosenkavalier and the Pregnant Virgin from Lilliput” exemplifies the dark angst of eccentric characters trapped in backwater lives. Thanks to Archipelago and Katherine Silver for this significant gift. 

One New Year’s resolution for 2020 is to begin the long journey with Argentine novelist and noteworthy literary critic Rodrigo Fresán’s “parts” trilogy, his two-thousand-page masterwork, translated by Will Vanderhyden. The first book, The Invented Part, was published by Open Letter in 2017 and short-listed for the National Book Award. The Dreamed Part is only recently available (November, 2019). I anticipate Open Letter will bring out the third, The Remembered Part—which Fresán completed this past October—as soon as it can. Next year, we’ll face national anxieties and political madness on a global scale, so it seems high time for a deep escape into intellectual science fiction and the mind of a writer obsessed with convergence with the “god particle.” What a triumph for Rodrigo Fresán to complete such a monumental work, and for Will Vanderhyden’s prize-winning translation.    

 

 

Margo Viscusi
Board Member

So many new voices translated into English appeared in 2019 and I hope we see many more in 2020. But publishers also made it possible to read more from favorite authors now gone in English. I particularly cherish a new translation, by Minna Zallman Procter, of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1973 novel Caro Michele.  The 2019 New Directions Paperback has the wry title Happiness, as Such, more suited to this mostly epistolary story of family bonds and dissensions. Appreciative readers of Elena Ferrante: look to Ginzburg for an earlier master of small-scale drama played out against a brilliantly noted larger political and cultural moment. We seem to be enjoying a revival of interest in Ginzburg and I hope it continues.

Maybe it’s age, but as I write this, I realize I’ve recently been drawn to books set in the 1950s and 1960s—puzzling decades to try to make sense of, so I look to the authors who were writing at the time for help. In this search I just discovered a new name. In January New York Review Books is releasing Hugh A. Harter’s translation of The Simple Past by Driss Chaibi (1926–2007), a prolific writer born in Morocco who lived most of his adult life in France. It’s the author’s first novel, published in 1954 and deeply critical of both the society into which he was born as well as the colonial powers and cultural legacies binding Morocco before independence. A major reason for my enthusiasm: an introduction by Adam Shatz, as knowledgeable and clarifying a guide to the histories of anticolonial struggle and the early years of independence in the Francophone world (as well as much else) as one can find.


Published Dec 20, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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