Captive by Claudine Dumont, tr. David Scott Hamilton #WITMonth

Captive CoverThe plot of Claudine Dumont’s debut novel, Captive, is fast-moving. We’re given just a glimpse of the protagonist’s, Emma’s, life before she’s ripped out of it. “I’m afraid of the dark. That’s what happens when I drink too much. And I drink too much. Often. And for some time now, even on weeknights. I can’t get to sleep without it. I can’t forget the empty box of my life without it.” Everything that follows depends on readers’ acceptance of what Emma’s words imply – that what came before was worse. That up until this point Emma has only gone through the motions of living.

Because after three pages everything changes .  Emma is kidnapped from her apartment and drugged. Two pages later she wakes up alone, in a locked, gray room. There are no windows and no furnishings other than a mattress on the floor. No food or water. She’s been both washed and dressed, but she has no idea who took her or why. During a panic attack she blacks out.

I don’t get up anymore. I lie on the mattress. I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I don’t dream anymore. I’m not sure if I sleep. I drift. Conscious, unconscious. But it’s always grey. And time doesn’t pass. Nothing changes. A hell in which nothing happens and nothing moves. As if I were already dead. Something has to change. I need something to mark the passage of time. So I don’t go crazy…

Short chapters and sentences are Dumont’s forte.

It’s a bit unnerving how quickly Emma grows accustomed to her new home. Pitchers of water appear which she suspects are the vehicle by which they (her captors) are drugging her. She still drinks. Her acceptance of and complacency about her circumstances is both frustrating and comforting. Emma’s life in the outside world was no life at all, remember? She used alcohol to insulate herself and in her captivity, strange it may seem, she has found the perfect substitute for tequila.

And then everything changes again.

Emma wakes up to find she has a roommate. They become subjects in a series of experiments. The suspense ramps up chapter by chapter. As far as quick reads go, Captive can’t be beat – it’s as easily digestible as an episode from The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. The pacing is perfect. Emma’s narrative voice and her reactions, though unusual, are plausible. It’s easy for the reader to buy into the bizarre premise on which this strange little novella is based.

Everything in the pages of Captive works. Dumont is a good writer and David Scott Hamilton’s translation captures the urgency of the story. If it has a weakness, it is the parameters Dumont set for herself are too small, too confining. There’s more to this story.  Captive is the second act in a three act play, and I’d like to be allowed to it through the entire performance.

Title:  Captive

Author:  Claudine Dumont

Translator:  David Scott Hamilton

Publisher: Arachnide Editions, Toronto (2017)

ISBN: 978 1 4870 0051 6

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2017!  August seemed like the perfect time to start the blog back up again, so until the end of the month I’ll be featuring reviews of translated books by women writers.


A New Ol’ Girls Club

The blogger Biblibio posted a call to arms in this December 9th post Where In the World Are Women Writers?  and the follow-up Women in translation – responses.  After informally crunching the numbers he/she came to the conclusion that less than 30% of the literature translated into English is written by women.  After reviewing my reading history I came up with results that were startlingly similar.   Leading to the obvious question:  What the hell is going on?!

I can’t speak for the publishing world as a whole, but I can unequivocally state that I do not seek out male over female authors.  Keeping that in mind I went back and tried to determine how the books I read this last year first came to my attention.  The result was a mixed bag of publishers, podcasters, book critics, bloggers, booksellers and Goodreads.  In other words, useless.

But, just when I was getting my indignation on in defense of the feminine gender, it was brought to my attention by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 Open Book Podcast that the majority of literary prizes in English for 2012-2013 were won by women authors.  Alice Monro (Nobel), Hilary Mantel (too many to list), Lydia Davis (Man Booker International), Eleanor Catton (Man Booker), Angela Jackson (Edinburgh Festival First Book)… you can see the entire list on the Open Book website.  In fact, women have made a strong showing overall on the long and short lists of all the major English language literary prizes this past year.

Obviously, this doesn’t in any way refute or reverse Biblibio’s findings.  Yet it does reinforce my belief that this disparity is not happening intentionally.  Publishers care about selling books and publishing good literature (hopefully not in that order).  It’s doubtful that they have any investment (emotional or otherwise) in an author’s gender.  My hope is that what we are dealing with is residual gender bias from the 20th century… a habit easily kicked if readers are willing to make the effort.  And more importantly, if those of us who review are willing to get the word out.  Because if they sell publishers will take notice.

Case in point:  who knew that the Scandinavians were so into crime (or, let’s face it, could name the 3 Scandinavian countries off the top of their head?) before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Now, I realize that in some circles “quotas” is a dirty word.  But they have frequently been proven effective.  So I propose this informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers:  in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women – and then review them.  The review part is key.  Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.

Hmmm… this could merit a hashtag.  Something I’m terrible at.  Anyone?

This year my personal goal is to read and review 52 books – one per week.  Half by women.  I intend to alternate – every book by a male author will be followed by a female author, and vice versa.  With a modicum of planning this shouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Until I started actively seeking books in translation I had no idea of the incredible literature from around the world I’d been missing out on.  Now I look at my bookshelves and see authors whose names, three years ago,  I didn’t know.  I can’t wait to see who gets added in the year ahead.

Women & Islam in the Middle East: “See With Disbelieving Eyes the Black Luster of Unleashed Hair”

I’m currently in the thick of the novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour.  It’s a challenging read. Everything about it feels foreign – the setting, the phrasing, the cultural references. But the author is talented and I’ve a feeling  it will be worth the work.

So, while you wait for me to finish, I have two offerings that provide a gateway into the complicated world of Islam and the Middle East.  Neither book is new, and both are fairly well-known.  The first, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women came out in 1995 and was widely reviewed.  Geraldine Brooks was a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who went on to win the Pulitzer for Fiction.  Nine Parts of Desire was researched in the six year period during which she covered the Middle East.  Being a woman gave her access to a world from which her male colleagues were barred – a chance to  learn about the private lives of Islamic women.  She took advantage of that opportunity to eloquently, and respectfully, tell their stories.

Nine Parts of Desire isn’t just interesting – it’s educational in an entertaining way. Now I know how lame that sounds, but really! In two pages Brooks provides the concise explanation on the origins of the schism between Sunnis & Shiites that the 10 o’clock news never bothers with. She was granted several unprecedented audiences with Queen Noor of Saudi Arabia and gives an intimate glimpse into the royal marriage and politics of that nation. She discusses arranged marriages, polygamy, the veil – symbols of Islam that are familiar to Westerners without our truly understanding their significance – and all this information comes to us from the female perspective.  Geraldine Brooks carefully examines the history and development of  customs and beliefs that shape the lives of women under Islam.  She does so without bias or preconceptions or the burden of a post-9/11 world.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is a book that appeals to readers across a broad spectrum. After being fired from the University of Tehran the author, Azar Nafisi, selected a special group of her females students to join a book club which met on Thursdays in her home. There they discussed books by authors who had been banned in Iran , ranging from Henry James to Vladimir Nabokov. The novels read by the group form the backdrop against which the drama of Nafisi’s students’ lives play out. Surprisingly – what comes across as the great tragedy of this book is not so much the oppression of these women (which is often the case), but the rift that is formed between them, their country and their culture.  A striking symbol of this, for me, was the contrast between how these women appeared publicly and  what existed beneath their dark headscarves, robes and chadors.  Nafisi describes their arrival for the first group.

…Azin & Mitra had arrived together. Azin was taking off her black kimonolike robe – Japanese-style robes were all the rage at the time – revealing a white peasant blouse that made no pretense of covering her shoulders, big golden earrings and pink lipstick….

…I had never seen Sanaz without her uniform, and stood there almost transfixed as she took off her robe and scarf. She was wearing an orange T-shirt tucked into tight jeans and brown boots, yet the most radical transformation was the mass of shimmering dark brown hair that now framed her face. She shook her magnificent hair from side to side, a gesture that I later noticed was a habit with her; she would toss her head and run her fingers through her hair every once in a while, as if making sure that her most prized possession was still there…

Reading Lolita in Tehran sometimes steps outside of the book group to give a wider view of the city in which the story takes place.  For example, when Nafisi encourages her class (of both male and female students)  at the University to put the novel The Great Gatsby on trial. The trial, with Nafisi standing as the accused book, is fascinating in itself.  Yet she also uses this chapter as an opportunity to discuss the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the events that led up to it and the changes it wrought. The University of Tehran was a hotbed for the different revolutionary factions – the Constitutional Liberals, the Communists, the Islamic Reformists and Fundamentalists. This chapter, Gatsby, displays Azar Nafisi’s ability to weave a beautiful story out of both historical fact and memory.  And while I enjoyed both Nine Parts of Desire and Reading Lolita in Tehran, I believe it will be Nafisi’s book that will remain a classic long after most other memoirs outlive their shelf life.

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women
Publisher:  Anchor Books, New York (1995)
ISBN:  0 385 47577 2

Reading Lolita in Tehran:  A Memoir in Books
Publisher:  Random House, New York (2003)
ISBN:  0 375 50490 7

Notes:  The quote  used in the post title is from Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour.  And for those interested in reading more about Islamic women and their lives, Sophisticated Dorkiness has reviews of Honeymoon in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad – both of which caught my interest.  So many books so little time!  My review of Censoring an Iranian Love Story should be up early next week.


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