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In Celebration of Women in Translation Month: Asian Women Authors — Part II [in The Booklist Reader]

This is the second of a two-part series. Click here for Part I.

Last week, we shared a baker’s dozen of titles by Asian women writers, made accessible by dedicated, invaluable translators who continuously, miraculously enable anglophone readers in discovering, enjoying, and sharing books from around the world. My constantly regenerating, overflowing gratitude to translators only grows.

While Women in Translation Month is just about over, here’s another 10 titles to explore and appreciate any time of the year. Let’s keep reading globally!


Bright by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul

“You stay here. I’m taking your brother over to Grandma’s. I’ll be back in a bit,” five-year-old Kampol’s father promises. Just a few days ago, “[s]omething went down at his house”: Kampol’s mother disappeared, and now his father and not-yet-one-year-old baby brother are leaving. Most of the neighbors in Mrs. Tongjan’s “cluster of tenement houses” know Kampol well and readily take turns trying to at least feed the young boy. He’s reticent at first, not wanting to miss his father’s return, but as hours become days – and more – he realizes he’s truly alone. Miraculously, Kampol always has enough food and somewhere to sleep, and eventually he even finds ways to make a little money. When Kampol’s father finally emerges, the reunion lasts only a single night. His mother reappears but never stays. And yet Kampol survives – even thrives – as everyone’s child. Two Pimwana titles arrived stateside this April, thanks to lawyer-turned-translator Poopoksakul: Bright is Pimwana’s first novel published in the U.S. and Arid Dreams is her debut short story collection. As one of Thailand’s most important female writers, western readers can hopefully look forward to additional anglophoned Pimwana imports.


Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth

Altharthi makes literary history as the first female Omani author to be translated into English and as the author of the first novel originally written in Arabic to win the Man Booker International Prize (2019). She shares that extraordinary success with translator/Oxford professor Booth who, in her Booker interview, reveals, “I like very much that Jokha does not write for readers who do not know Oman: she does not try to explain things.” Indeed, Althari’s unique structure – more jigsaw puzzle than linear narrative – demands vigilant participation. Once that puzzle is pieced together, a robust village of alliances and betrayals, survival and murder, and surrender and escape emerges. Set against twentieth-century Oman’s rapid shift from slave-owning nation to oil-rich international presence are three generations of an upper-class Omani family. Patient readers will be seductively, magnificently rewarded.


The Emissary by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Japanese-born, Germany-based Tawada writes facilely in both languages and creates incomparable award-winning fiction that defies easy labels. Her latest literary, linguistic mélange – smoothly rendered in English by Mitsutani – blends fairy tale, dystopian warning, peculiar mystery, cultural critique, and multigenerational family saga. Yoshiro and Mumei are a symbiotically bonded duo who are a century apart in age. At almost 108, Yoshiro’s reason for (still) living is Mumei, his daughter’s son’s son – to get him up, dressed, mandarin-juiced, out the door to school. In this alternate future, everything – soil, sky, oceans – is potentially poisoned, most animals have disappeared, and even the children face extinction. Despite his seemingly truncated prognosis, Mumei’s outlook remains full of insight and charm.


Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan and translated by Janet Hong

In the titular short story, “Flowers of Doom,” a loner painstakingly studies his neighbors by sifting through their trash – “Garbage never lies” – eventually deciphering the affair that implodes next door in number 507. That same 507 appears in “The Woman Next Door,” in which a new neighbor moves in; she’s single, friendly, and first borrows a spatula from the wife of the family next door, then quickly manipulates possession of the husband and son. Agitated tenants hope to prevent the owner from selling their building in “The Retreat,” but the evening ends in murder. PEN/Heim Translation Fund–awarded Hong enables English-language readers access into Ha’s disturbing, unpredictable, oneiric – yet all too recognizable – world in which heat stifles, waste rots, and bonds break; yet, for most, life goes on.


Human Acts by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith

In her follow-up to the Man Booker International Prize-winning The Vegetarian, Han – again translated for anglophone audiences by Smith – drops readers into a mass of deteriorating corpses. Once student demonstrators, they met gruesome ends during South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Uprising. A 15-year-old boy searching for his missing friend enters a school where bodies are being collected and doesn’t leave alive. In the five chapters that follow, Han, using Rashōmon-like shifts in perspective, bears witness to what happened inside the death-filled building, as well as the decades-long, hellish aftermath endured by those who managed to get out. Lest readers dismiss these events as specific to this place, this time, these people, Han demonstrates how inhumane human acts are “imprinted in our genetic code,” citing massacres in Nanjing, Bosnia, and “all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World.”


The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo and translated by Janet Hong

Making her debut in English translation, Han presents a spare novel in two distinct parts seemingly set 15 years apart. Part 1 focuses on two children among 35 fifth-grade students as a new year begins in March 1998 (Korean schools restart in spring). Mia is the “lucky” child, her life blessed with overabundance. In sharp contrast, “the Child” lacks even a name, silently suffering unspeakable abuse while channeling her torture in disquieting, harrowing ways. Part 2 unexpectedly shifts to first-person narration, in which “I,” who is revealed to be both the teacher and the author, awakes from a dream to confront “you,” the still-nameless Child. Linearity dissolves, memory is suspect, storytelling becomes unstable. In Han’s innovative, intriguing work of metafiction – her fantastical wordplay rendered by translator Hong – “The words become severed from each other,” leaving readers to ponder, decipher, admire, and applaud.


The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder

Without names, these people, this island, could be anyone, anywhere. As fantastical as the premise of her latest anglophoned novel seems, Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor, 2009) intends exactly that universality. Initially, small things disappeared – “Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp.” What didn’t just vanish was destroyed. And then people disappeared – those able to remember were removed by the Memory Police to ensure community uniformity. A novelist lives alone while writing her latest book about a voiceless woman. When her editor reveals that his memories remain intact, the novelist immediately recognizes the danger and provides him refuge. Then books disappear, the rest are burned; the single library, too. And still, the disappearing doesn’t stop. Ogawa’s anointed translator Snyder adroitly captures the quiet control with which Ogawa gently unfurls her ominously Orwellian narrative.


Mina by Kim Sagwa and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

While set in P City, South Korea, the events in Kim’s novel could happen anyplace in the world where teenagers break under the unrelenting pressure to succeed. Crystal is outwardly perfect – a smart polyglot, effortlessly beautiful, indulged by her wealthy (albeit mostly absent) parents, a collector (and discarder) of boyfriends. Her best (only) friend, the titular Mina, isn’t quite so accomplished – but she’s certainly more vulnerable and honest. Her older brother also happens to be the one boy who Crystal actually wants but can’t yet have. When Mina’s childhood friend suddenly commits suicide, seemingly without cause, Mina withdraws not only from school, but from Crystal, as well. Suddenly, Crystal’s façade begins to crack as she irrationally acts out: unpredictable outbursts turn into ultimate violence. The Fulton husband-and-wife translating team introduces one of Korea’s most lauded young writers to English readers; the imported debut couldn’t be more universal, its disturbing tragedy all too familiar across the world.


The Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee and translated by Chi-Young Kim

Lee, a screenwriter famous in her native Korea, draws from Marilyn Monroe’s real-life 1954 Korean visit to entertain U.S. troops, imagining a relationship between Marilyn and her interpreter, Alice. The enigmatic Marilyn, a consummate performer whose nonpublic needs Alice must try to fulfill, has detoured from her honeymoon with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio to lift American spirits. With war’s end, Alice – haunted by devastating memories, searching for the possibility of redemption – attempts to rebuild her life. Employed by the U.S. military, Alice becomes a conduit through which Lee examines the lasting effects of abuse, betrayal, violence, and the sometimes unbearable cost of survival. Lauded Korean translator Kim again enables anglophone audiences resonating access.


Strange Weather in Tokyo (originally published as The Briefcase) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell

One night in a crowded bar, not-yet-40-year-old Tsukiko sits next to her high school Japanese teacher, who she hasn’t seen since graduation. Some thirty years her senior, Sensei (as she always calls him) remembers her as the not-particularly-stellar student she was decades ago. Their drinking and eating habits coincide with frequency, although their interactions somehow seem to remain separate yet together. Over several years, their meetings move beyond their neighborhood bar, to postprandial walks, a mushroom-hunting hiking jaunt, and even an island weekend getaway. Venturing further out ironically allows them to come closer together, slowly, gently, moving towards a hesitant relationship “based on a premise of love.” Kawakami’s translator-of-choice Powell gifts lucky English-reading audiences with a quirky, unlikely romance-of-sorts to be sighed over long after the final page. Watch for the delightful, disturbing companion title, Parade, appearing in early November.


Published: “In Celebration of Women in Translation Month: Asian Women Authors — Part II,” The Booklist Reader, August 30, 2019


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