Korean Writer Hwang Sok-yong

There’s an emotional stoicism to Hwang’s characters that might be misconstrued as flatness, but should be perceived as an idiosyncrasy of the author’s prose. The lives Hwang depicts are not easy ones, and could have been twisted into distasteful melodramas. The pain and suffering that Bari, Woohee, Minwoo, and the two brothers experience is more powerful for being muffled, filtered, as if their spirits and psyches were protected by layers of cotton wool. 

The above is a passage from my March review of three of Hwang Sok-yong’s novels for Guernica. I love these books. I love Sora Kim-Russell’s translations, the humanity of the characters, and the seamless way Hwang Sok-yong weaves the supernatural into the everyday. (It reminds me a bit of Cesar Aira, despite these two writers being nothing alike). The title of the essay, which I didn’t choose, is A Country on the Cusp of Change (Guernica, March 2020)… and, to be honest, I feel like this review got a little bit away from me. It became too much about the political and economic, maybe because the author has a history as a political activist that I felt I needed to talk about, and too little about the emotional way I connected with the characters. The two brothers in Familiar Things, Bari and her dog, Jung Woohee from At Dusk — I’m still thinking about them months later. We care about the ideas in the text because we care about the characters.

You can read the full review here.

Title: Familiar Things
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: Princess Bari
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: At Dusk
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Therese Bohman’s novels have fascinated me since I first read her English language debut, Drowned, in 2012. For a long time, I thought it was simply the ferocity of the stories that I admired. Her portrayals of love, and what passes for love, is intimidating. Reminiscent of Virginie Despentes, sex is a power struggle. There’s an undercurrent of violence and manipulation in all male/female interactions.

Eventide, her third book translated into English, maybe her breakthrough. It has received more attention than her two previous books combined, having arrived at the perfect intersection of the #MeToo movement and a demand for more books in translation by women. I always want to talk about Bohman during Women In Translation month… though I sadly didn’t manage to get this post done for WIT2019.

Karolina is Bohman’s first middle-aged heroine. She is an art historian and academic. Her last romantic relationship (which was characterized as having the longevity and monogamy of marriage) has just ended. Not because of infidelity, tragedy or abuse, but because Karolina decided she no longer loved her partner. She finds this new phase in her life both exciting and frightening — an emotional cocktail which leaves her vulnerable to the attention of a charismatic graduate student she’s been assigned to advise.

In many ways, Karolina is the logical evolution of Bohman’s previous female protagonists — all of whom are involved in some variation of a romantic triangle. In Drowned two sisters are seduced and ensnared by the elder’s husband. In The Other Woman, a twenty-something cafeteria worker begins a romantic relationship with an older, married man and, unknowingly, the man’s daughter. In Eventide it is Karolina, her student Anton, and Lennart Olsson (another professor in the art department), who form the novel’s emotional triumvirate.

Anton has made a fascinating — and possibly groundbreaking — discovery. He has uncovered a cache of work by a forgotten woman artist from the Mannerist period, which is Karolina’s particular area of expertise. Lennart Olsson has made his career on “discovering” overlooked and forgotten female artists. In Anton, he sees the possibility of advancement… should he become Anton’s advisor. But, of course, everything is not as it appears. Anton’s progress on his thesis is slow, his research haphazard, and Karolina quickly senses a problem.

Eventide is a type of quiet drama that centers around situations and challenges particular to the lives of women. The stakes might appear relatively low to us but, from Karolina’s perspective, they are everything. Is Anton a fraud? Will Karolina be helping him perpetuate an academic lie, thus endangering her own career and reputation? And, always, underlying everything is Karolina’s fears about being a single woman in her forties, childless and alone.

What would she be remembered for? She might end up with neither children nor a partner; what had she done to make an impression on the world? Her writing didn’t interest many people. Maybe she ought to write more, something really radical. Surely she ought to express her opinion when she had one, for example in the debate on the columns in the new subway station? If everything else was doomed to disappear into oblivion, the least she could do was to write what she really thought.

It’s difficult not to consider how different Karolina’s situation might be or appear if the character were a man. She has a reasonably successful career and is comfortable financially. Her work and social circle at the University remain unchanged after her separation. She is attractive, intelligent, and her life is very much her own. And, yet, Bohman understands how gender affects perception. Lennert is meant to function as Karolina’s male counterpart. He, too, is single and financially well-off. He is considered something of a ladies’ man, though Karolina doesn’t see it. The difference is that Lennert has been more successful professionally. He is an opportunist. He has benefitted from all the advantages of white, male privilege, and Karolina understands that, in contrast to her own sense of self, “Lennert thought he deserved the acclaim”.

Examinations of the lives of older women are becoming more common. The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, even has a new book on that subject No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History (I’m buying multiple copies for Christmas this year). For those familiar with Minae Mitzumara’s, Inheritance From Mother — Karolina has more in common with Mitsuki, the book’s fifty-something heroine, than with the lost young women of Boehman’s previous two novels. Both characters, Karolina and Mitsuki, are used to explore what a fulfilling life looks like for a middle-aged woman existing outside of the societal expectations of lover, daughter, and mother. Karolina’s story, like Mitsuki’s, is one of persistence and continuity versus revolution and reinvention.

Because few people possess the courage to sell their belongings, cut off ties to their family and friends and move to an Ashram in India. Or have the luxury of spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Or the financial resources to eat, pray and love their way around the world. But, more often than not, these are the stories we are told. Bohman writes different stories. She portrays a woman’s life without resorting to extremes in characterization and reaction. Her heroines are allowed to misstep, behave badly and make morally questionable decisions. They are transgressive. Karolina is a refreshing respite from characters like Emma Bovary, April Wheeler and the entire literary canon built around women disproportionately punished, and/or made ridiculous, for aspiring to more. And while the stories Boehman writes are not as rare as they once were, they are still very welcome.

Title: Eventide
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2017)
ISBN: 978 159051 893 9

Women In Translation Up To No Good

So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).

This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.


In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.

My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?

It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!!

…That little bitch was after her apartment.

Obviously, something will need to be done.

All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.

Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*

Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good
Author: Helene Tursten
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018)
ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1

Hybrid Child: A Work of Wide-Screen Baroque Science Fiction by Mariko Ōhara

A question that came up during this year’s Best Translated Book Award was how much attention should be given to supplementary material? Or, put another way, how important is the context in determining how you feel about a book? An author’s or translator’s note, a forward or afterward by a famous fan, a podcast analyzing the text chapter by chapter or an interview with the author — all of these things can drastically change your relationship to a piece of writing.

But there are also times when extra information, additional insight into the text, can enhance your reading. You can’t always depend on being able to navigate a novel intuitively. This is often a challenge when reading translations, where we’re navigating cultural, historical and linguistic differences in addition to the complexities of plot and structure. Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ōhara, is a futuristic novel that spans centuries. Crowded with multiple narratives, any one of which could be detached and developed into a standalone book, understanding it as a work of “widescreen baroque” is essential to appreciate the intricacies of Ōhara’s writing.

The term “widescreen baroque” was coined by the writer Brian Aldiss to describe a sci-fi subgenre characterized by elaborate, over-the-top plots, a preoccupation with metaphysical ideas, and a taste for the dramatic. Books that fall into this category “…obey a dictionary definition of baroque; which is to say that they have a bold and exuberant rather than a fine style, they are eccentric, and sometimes degenerate into extravagance. They like a wide screen, with space and possibly time travel as props, and at least the whole solar system as their setting.” Every page turn should introduce a new spectacle. The plots should jump from one incredible premise to another. If you don’t feel a little bit off-balance, then the author is doing something wrong.

Hybrid Child is divided into three sections, each one set in a completely different time and terrain. The sections are connected by a small group of reoccurring characters, chief among these is a cyborg, B #3. But Ōhara uses a cacophony of perspectives and voices to tell her stories. Hybrid Child is a chaotic and noisy text. Her secondary characters are often the more compelling: a young man who is kept alive in a mobile egg he likens to a coffin and a housekeeping robot whose emotions push against the borders of her programming are two of my favorites.

Suddenly, the tin robot felt sad and hopeless. At least if she were human, she could have a short nap, or a deep sleep, or get tipsy on booze — there would be all kinds of options.

Deep in reverie, the tin robot thought about the girl who had flown away and left her.

“What is it? Looks like you want to say something. Come on, say it. It’s almost time for you to make dinner.”

The tin robot looked at the old master with her two widely spaced eyes.

“…Heaven.”

As for the plot: the first section is a horror story which descends into a standoff with the military. We are introduced to an unnamed, middle-aged woman, living in isolation. Everything about her home, from the house to the landscape around her (snowcovered), is relentlessly and antiseptically white. B #3 has escaped from the government facility where he was created and is being tracked by soldiers. As he approaches the house he shifts into the form of a Dadazim, a doglike creature genetically engineered to be the perfect house pet. The woman welcomes and feeds him. B #3 begins communicating with the home’s only other occupant, the house’s A.I., which manifests as a holograph of the woman’s dead daughter. It’s not exactly an Ex Machina situation but conveys the same sinister feel.

B #3, we soon learn, is capable of taking on the form of any biological creature by sampling its cells. He can even combine samples of different organisms, creating entirely new species. By the end of the first section, B #3 will take the form of his host’s dead daughter, Jonah. As Jonah, he escapes and finds temporary sanctuary and happiness in Section Two: Farewell. In Section Three: Aquaplanet (which makes up the bulk of the novel) she will make a journey through space and time to a new planet whose inhabitants live with uncertainty. The A.I., Milagros, who controls the planet’s systems is teetering on the edge of madness.

According to the translator, Jodie Beck, whose clear prose styling deserves credit for holding the book together, “the three stories that compose Hybrid Child were originally serialized in SF Magazine in Japan between 1984 and 1990, and all three were compiled together and published as a single book by Hayakawa Publishers in 1990.” That, and the knowledge that the author intended this as an example of “widescreen baroque”, goes a long way toward explaining the disconnected nature of the three parts. Though Ōhara threads elements and characters through the different plots in an attempt to unify them, the changes in the setting are abrupt. Time jumps add to the discord.

Perhaps Ohara’s greatest strength is the vividness of the characters she creates. One of these is the Military Priest, for whom time is not a linear construct. He slips through the time stream, manipulating it to bear witness to key events and to pursue B #3/Jonah. The fact that he exists untethered to a specific time or place eventually drives him insane. But not before he hatches a plan to put an end to B #3/Jonah. He is an irredeemably evil character, endowed with godlike powers.

Like Yoshio Aramaki, whose novel The Sacred Era* is also part of the University of Minnesota Press’ Parallel Future series, Ōhara’s book is burdened by Judeo-Christian metaphors. Mother-figures weighed down by Freudian symbolism appear in every section. There are awkward (and disturbing) sex scenes. There’s a lot to unpack… more, perhaps, than is necessary. I’d argue that, in the end, each individual section is better than the sum of its parts.

I found Hybrid Child a problematic book on many levels. In a way, Ōhara’s novel can be read as a complex coming of age story that explores our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and the existence of god. But these themes are so deeply buried under extraneous rubble that they lose definition, becoming amorphous. And, despite being written by a woman, there are parts which have me questioning it being labeled a feminist work of science fiction.

This perceived messiness, though, is also an essential characteristic of the project. And, admittedly, there’s something charming about its imperfections. But are they working in service to, or distracting away from, the emotional connection the reader is meant to feel to the story? Therein lies the danger of writing within the framework of a genre.


*”The Parallel Futures book series is dedicated to translations of key works of Japanese science fiction intervening creatively and critically into temporal processes of social and political subjectification… These works prefer temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication, seeking intensifiers of mobile force and difference rather than forms of representation, aiming not to pull the future into the present but to generate parallel, diagonal, and transversal futures whereby space-time emerges, as not yet again.”

-from the University of Minnesota Press website

Barrelhouse Magazine & Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan

Two things.

Thing #1 — I’ve been a listener to the Book Fight! podcast pretty much from the beginning. I own a tee-shirt. I frequently laugh out loud while listening to the two hosts, Tom & Mike, banter about NANOWRIMO, Kit-Kats, fan fiction and, occasionally, books. And it’s through them I learned about Barrelhouse, a magazine devoted to literature and pop culture (but not always in that order). I wrote my first review for their recently re-vamped Book Reviews section back in May.

Thing #2 — Did I mention I wrote my first review for Barrelhouse’s website on Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan? It begins like this:

Brace for profanity.

Before we start, let’s get something straight: Virginie Despentes doesn’t give a shit what you think. She doesn’t care about your sexual hang-ups, trigger warnings, brands of feminism, gender constructs, or value systems. She’s a punk rock post-porn French feminist who gets her books blurbed by Annie Sprinkle. Molly Crabapple draws her covers. Her first novel, a rape-revenge fantasy story she wrote in her early twenties, is called Baise-Moi (Fuck Me).

You can read the full review on Barrelhouse’s website by clicking on the excerpt above.