Read these women!

March 8th is International Women’s Day. And what better way to mark it than by recommending some excellent women writers? On the basis of pretty subjective criteria, I’ve compiled a list of a few female writers that in different ways deal with gender and women’s issues in their texts.

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Joumana Haddad (1970-)

A poet and journalist, Haddad became the editor of the first erotic magazine in Lebanon, Jasad magazine. Haddad has a distinct feminist vision: to show that there exist Arab women who are quite different from the stereotypical silent, suffering Arab woman.

In her most recent English book, she brutally murders one of the Arab world’s most symbolic female characters, Scheherazade. Starting as an angry reply (the undertitle of the book is “confessions of an angry Arab woman”) to a Swedish journalist’s comment about not being “familiar with the possibility” of liberated Arab women, the book is also a memoir, dealing with issues of identity and individuality, as well as the liberating force of literature. As Lebanese American novelist Rabih Alameddine has said of I Killed Scheherazade, “Joumana Haddad is a revolutionary, this book is the manifesto.” And it’s well worth a read. (Buy it here.)

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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Probably the ultimate English high-brow Modernist snob, and firmly positioned in the Western canon, Woolf doesn’t really belong here on the New Narratives blog, you might say. But she played an important role feminist literature by focusing on the difficulties faced by women who wanted to write. And she writes well. Her famous essay «A Room of One’s Own» introduces an imagined sister of Shakespeare, Judith, who, without the money or freedom to pursue a writing career, had a fate a lot bleaker than her brother’s.

Her novel Orlando, a mock-biography following Orlando from a young boy to a grown woman over the course of several centuries, deals with issues of gender and sexuality in a way that was quite daring for its time. But Woolf got away with it because of her playfulness with the subject, using humour and irony to visualize the impact of rigid gender roles. (You can buy Orlando here.)

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Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-)

Aidoo is a Ghanaian writer and academic. Much of her writing deals with the role of women, and the effects of (post)colonialism in Ghana. She has written both novels and short stories, poems and plays. The publication of her play “The Dilemma of a Ghost” was the first by an African woman dramatist.

The short story collection “No Sweetness Here” looks at how race, gender and power intersect, and include stories about divorce, prostitution and the influence of Western beauty ideals and consumerism in post-colonial Ghana. What is the position of women in a post-colonial society where the «big man» is no longer solely the white man, but also wealthy black men? Why do many black women wear wigs and whiten their skin? These are some of the questions Aidoo asks in these sharp and straight-forward stories. (Buy it here.)

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Jhumpa Lahiri (1967-)

A daughter of Bengali Indians, Lahiri moved to the United States with her family at an early age. The theme of immigration and navigating between cultures is a recurring theme in her books. Although she doesn’t write specifically about gender, many of her stories investigate the intersection of gender roles and norms as well as perceptions of marriage and family life in the different cultures.

Her most recent book, the short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, focuses on second and third generation immigrants. She continues her style from her first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, of connecting the different stories. She makes an ever closer connection in the three final stories of Unaccustomed Earth, which from different perspectives relate the growing ties between Hema and Kaushik. She writes unique stories from children’s perspectives, about the meeting of old and new, and responsibilities to different cultures and traditions. (Buy it here.)

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Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Lorde was not only a poet and writer, but also an activist. She challenged white feminists, and brought the aspects of race, class and sexuality into the feminist struggle. As a black lesbian poet in the United States Lorde felt «triply invisible». Issues of identity is a recurring subject in much of her work.

Her autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name mixes poetic beauty, incredible events and brutal honesty. Through vivid pictures and a sensual language, she describes growing up black in Harlem with parents who tried to shield her from the extensive racism, her path to writing and coming to terms with her sexuality. (Buy the book here.)

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Gerd Brantenberg (1941-)

Brantenberg became active in the women’s rights movement in the 70s, and her much of her work focuses on gender and sexuality, patriarchy and heteronormativity. In Norway she is probably best known for her biographical trilogy following Inger Holm through her childhood and adolescence, as she grows into her lesbian identity. But these aren’t among the English translations of her books.

Her novel Egalia’s daughters, on the other hand, is available in English. It is a humorous satire on patriarchy, set in the fantasy land Egalia, where men are “the second sex”, and women oppress men through strict gender roles and beauty ideals. In her over-the-top style, Brantenberg has even subsituted all words that are normally given in masculine form with feminine counterparts, and vice versa. (You can buy it here.)

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What women writers or books about women would you recommend?

Our next publication will be in April

The theme for our next publication is “discrimination“, something both women and minorities might experience. Have you read a good book dealing with this issue? Or do you want to share your own (real or fictitious) experiences?

You are free to contribute essays, articles, book reviews, free texts and anything else you want to share with us on this topic! Send in your contribution by March 20 to our e-mail new.narratives1@gmail.com

Until our next publication you can follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook!

What’s the truth about Uncle Tom and Mowgli?

A new series of literary events, dedicated to close readings, started last week at Litteraturhuset. The first objects of discussion were Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kipling’s The Jungle Book, both recently in new, complete Norwegian translations.

While scholars Jon Haarberg and Arild Engelsen Ruud gave us the context for the books, about the time in which they were created and their reception, authors Jan Grue and Ole Robert Sunde contributed with some new interpretations and impressions of the books in our context. Here are some of the things they touched upon.

Too old or not old enough?

- Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dealing with a specific, «pressing» problem, that is why it seems outdated today, says Jan Grue. The political goal of abolishing slavery in the US has been accomplished. While race and ethnicity are still hot topics, both in the US and in Norway, some of the language and observations made in the book come off as pretty stereotypical, even racist, in today’s context.

Grue offered the opinion that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once «too old» and «not old enough» for us to appreciate it.

We are used to stereotypical characterizations in literature. We accept Richard III’s «deformed, unfinished» appearance as connected to his character because it was written a long time ago, but when Uncle Tom’s obedient character is tied to the colour of his skin, we spot racist and discriminatory descriptions more easily.

«Boyology»-tales from the arch-imperialist

If you haven’t read The Jungle Book growing up, you might have seen the Disney movie, with the little boy Mowgli growing up among the animals in the jungle, eventually becoming their leader and even defeating the tiger Shere Kan. Originally not a single story, but a collection of stories in two books, The Jungle Book might be read quite differently if we know the context in which it was written, Arild Engelsen Lund says.

Kipling, living much of his life in British India, was a strong advocate for the British Empire and its colonial project. The time the Jungle Book stories first appeared in print coincided with a rise in Indian nationalism. The British, and Kipling among them, saw the Indians demanding independence as ridiculous, much like the monkeys are portrayed in The Jungle Book. So, is Mowgli the British imperialist conquering exotic lands and taking charge among the animals, the natives that are «half devil, half child»? Or does Kipling’s eloquent writing justify his imperialist views?

More than one truth

The Jungle Book and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two books that many have grown up reading, but at least the Norwegian versions have been what one might call «light» ones, for a long time author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name wasn’t even connected to the Norwegian Uncle Tom text. Jon Haarberg explained that the first Norwegian translation of the book was anonymous – as was its first, praising review, oddly enough. Much of the political and religious message of the novel was cut in the translation, as it was adapted into a harmless children’s book.

The Jungle Book was soon acknowlegded in Britain’s literary canon – a book all children should know, or at any rate all boys. In fact the book greatly influenced Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, who named the junior movement Wolf Cubs after Mowgli’s adopted family. The stories of the Jungle Book were treated in much the same way as Uncle Tom, with several editions abridged and adapted for younger readers. And with several comic books and movie adaptations, the symbolism and layers that might be found in Kipling’s text are maybe less evident.

The new, complete Norwegian translations are a reminder that there could be more to the books than we remember. Going back to the original texts of the stories we’re familiar with, we might discover the truth about Uncle Tom or Mowgli, or maybe we find that there is more than one truth?

A few words on the 22/7 attacks

I know that most of you are aware of the terrible tragedy Norway has suffered the past days. The editors of New Narratives, along with the rest of you, grieve over the loss of the 76 people who died (so far) as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. Our thoughts are with the deceased and those personally affected.

As a promoter of multiculturalism working in Oslo, the heart of the attacks, I felt it necessary to say a few words concerning the tragic event. The fact that so many people have stood together and shown solidarity in such difficult times gives me hope for a better tomorrow. Although right-wing extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik spew hatred and the belief that the West and Middle-East are at war, Norwegians have chosen to attempt to stand together as a nation. This makes me incredibly proud.

Breivik murdered followers of a political party because he felt it supported multiculturalism to the point that it was destroying a nation. Although most of us will agree that immigration has not been without its challenges, what he claims is far from the truth. It is true that Norway could work on improving its immigration and integration policies. It is also true that Norway could work on accepting cultural differences so it can change and grow as a nation as a result of this. But the most important fact is that we are trying, and will try even harder after the attack to prove Breivik and other right-wing extremists wrong. New Narratives will work to increase its efforts to embrace multiculturalism and distance itself from extremists, and hopes you can help be a part of that change.

What is multiculturalism? Olav Kobbeltveit examines this thought here. He describes it as being two things: integrating and assimilating other cultures into our own, yet celebrating cultural differences and recognizing that we can all learn from each other. “More cultures gives us a richer society,” Kobbeltveit writes. This principle is what we should draw on for inspiration.

Where do we go from here? In an excellent article, Ahmed Moor writes about where the dichotomy really lies. “The combatants are not Islam and the West. Instead, the war is between the normal, sane people of the world and the right-wing zealots who see doom, destruction, hellfire and God’s Will at every turn […] Anders Behring Breivik, Mohammed Atta and Baruch Goldstein are all cut from the same rotten cloth. Anwar Al-Awlaki and Glenn Beck – the peddlers of the faith – all share the same core afflictions,” Moor states.

Aslak Sira Myrhe, the director of the House of Literature in Oslo, has penned a piece for the Guardian about the recent terrorist attacks in Oslo, and how experts and the media were quick to blame “the Other” – Muslims. Challenging state leaders to act, he writes: “When the world believed this to be an act of international Islamist terrorism, state leaders, from Obama to Cameron, all stated that they would stand by Norway in our struggle. Which struggle will that be now? All western leaders have the same problem within their own borders. Will they now wage war on homegrown rightwing extremism? On Islamophobia and racism?”

So in a strange space of grief, regrets, and thoughts of improvement, I ask you all to think of where you stand in all of this. Will you be helping rebuild Norway into a renewed land of peace and democracy, or stand on the side of the hate-mongers?

Talking about Bee Rowlatt in Oslo

At Idefestivalen on June 18th, the University of Oslo was lucky enough to host Bee Rowlatt, a BBC journalist who came to talk about her newly published book, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad.

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a modern epistolary novel, and one of those rare books that focuses on the other side of a story. It’s a collection of emails between Rowlatt herself and an Iraqi professor she contacted by chance. Through the letters between Rowlatt and May Witwit, an Iraqi professor of English literature, we get to hear the grim realities of everyday life in Baghdad versus the chaotic life of a mother of three in England. Witwit describes bombing and death threats as part of her everyday life. Soldiers constantly bursting into her house, Islamic extremists threatening to kill her if she teaches human rights, and in the midst of it all, her electricity disappearing every time she turns on her computer. It was a miracle that the correspondence even took place. And once it did, Witwit’s emails brought a shocking message: life was good before the invasion. Witwit tells: “Baghdad is like a mosaic of different cultures and beliefs with Sunnis, Shi’ites and all the different types of Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Turcoman Amernians and others living in one city. All these groups seemed to live peacefully together until the US ‘democracy’ ignited all the differences that we see today…” We are introduced to a country in chaos, people suffering and dying at every corner — wistful thoughts to the days “before the invasion.” The situation becomes real to those of us who have only heard stories and read cold facts.

“My feelings changed after talking with May,” Bee Rowlatt explains in her talk. “As a journalist, I was aware of what was going on in Iraq. Much of journalism capitalizes on misery — the larger the body count, the better the news. But with May it was different. I cared about her, and suddenly when you heard about a new bombing in Baghdad, it meant much more.”

I believe this is what this books sets out to do, whether intentional or not. It humanizes a people. These are ordinary people, trying to live their day-to-day lives. May’s only desire is continue teaching literature at the university in peace. Yet, Rowlatt must ask: “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?” Literature takes on an entirely different role in this text. There are women risking their lives to come to class to learn about Dickens and Chaucer. Literature isn’t entertainment, it’s a form of escape, or as Rowlatt describes, a “transportation to another world.”

To some, talking about literature in a war zone may seem trivial. But women like Witwit and Rowlatt know better. “It’s small rituals that make us human, like making tea,” Rowlatt reflects in one her many emails to Witwit. And although for some people, reading is nothing more than a minor ritual in their lives, sitting in a chair at night curled up with a good book may very well be one of the things that makes us most human.

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Bee Rowlatt was kind enough to talk to New Narratives during and after the talk. Here are some of the questions and answers.

Karina: “This is a story of incredible friendship. Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, after 5 years of correspondence, are the two of you still friends?”

Rowlatt: “Yes, absolutely! We still have a great relationship.”

Karina: “Did you feel differently about America and Iraq after exchanging emails with Witwit?”

Rowlatt: “My feelings for America haven’t changed. Since I’m a journalist, I know what happened and what was happening in Iraq. I must say that May had a lot of interesting things to say about Iraq before the invasion. In my opinion Iraq used to be this great country for men, and not so great for women, but if May were here right now, she’d have a snappy comment that could contradict that.” (Laughs)

Karina: “Will Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad be translated to Norwegian?”

Rowlatt: “I don’t know. Are you bilingual?”

Karina: “Actually I am! Give me a call! On another note, I couldn’t help but notice that the title of your book is very similar to one that New Narratives wrote about: Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s a memoir about a female professor of literature from Pakistan. Any particular reason why your title is so similar?

Rowlatt: I get that all the time. I don’t know why, but Penguin chose that title for us. Maybe it was so that people who liked Reading Lolita would buy our book? Like, “if you liked this book, then you’ll looove Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad“? Penguin said we could choose another title, but we couldn’t think of anything better, so it just stuck. They’re not really all that similar, because Reading Lolita is a memoir, and this is collection of letters.”

Karina: “In what way do you feel that Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is new or different?”

Rowlatt: “It’s different in that it talks about everyday life in two very different places. It’s a true story. One of the great things about it is how unselfconscious we were. We had no idea that we were writing for an audience, we were just two friends trying to stay in touch.”

Karina: “So would you say Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a new narrative?”

Bee Rowlatt gave her thumbs up.

To conclude: it was a fun presentation with a lively author who managed to perk interest even in those who obviously hadn’t read the book. People were crawling to the front to meekly ask for copies of Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad after a convincing talk. New Narratives certainly recommends it. In fact, click here and you’ll find it too!

Zoran Živkovic and the plight of non-English authors

“They wanted to call me Donald Livingstone.”

On Friday, the 10th of June, Litteraturhuset hosted a special guest: Zoran Živkovic. Doctor Živkovic is a Serbian author, perhaps best known for his fantasy novels. He originally came to the event to discuss how to construct a universe. But before this began, he gave a very important speech, and I felt the need to write about a grave issue that many multicultural authors face.

“3% of all books in bookstores in America and England are translated works,” Živkovic begins. “Many are shocked to find out that ‘The Little Prince’ and the Bible were translated, and not originally English. Once I saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.'”

Many of us laughed at this, but there was a painful grain of truth in it as well. English books are dominating the market — not only in English-speaking countries, but all over the planet. For English authors, this is great news. But for the rest of the world, clawing your way into those three percent is a life-long battle.

“When I lived in America, my publisher advised me to choose a more ‘American’ pen name,” Živkovic tells us. “But how can you possibly turn ‘Zoran Živkovic’ into an American name? I asked my publisher, and after a long etymological search, he concluded: Donald Livingstone. But I couldn’t change my name to something so different. It just wasn’t me.”

It is absurd to think that Serbian authors who write in Serbian would have to change their names as well when being translated. But the English world just isn’t interested in foreign works. So many authors end up having “non-sellable” names, such as Živkovic. But is this a malevolent move from a xenophobic English world, or are there other factors at play?

“I believe this a Catch-22 situation,” Živkovic says. “The publishing companies claim that they will publish what is marketable, but how can English-speakers know if they like foreign works if they’re never introduced to them? It becomes a vicious cycle.”

Norwegians can easily believe that this doesn’t apply to them. Most of us are at the very least bilingual and read a lot of translated works. But if we look closer, how many of these works are actually “multicultural”? According to Barnebokinstituttet, 60% of books read by Norwegian children were translated works in 2009. And of these translated books, a whopping 70% were translated from English, and 17% from other Nordic languages.1 This means that altogether, children read on average 8% non-English/Nordic authors. Živkovic´s statistics are almost equally grim in Norway.

Even if Norwegians read translated books, this by no means means that we are being multicultural. Perhaps something to think about next time you go to the bookstore?

References:

  1. Barnebokinstituttet