Review: An Exploration of What Haunts us in “MUMU”

Sunday Spotlight

This review was originally published on HellaPinay.com

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Source: mumu-sf.com

“We all have ghosts.”

The neon red sign on the facade of Bindlestiff Studio on 6th St. beckoned from afar. A huddle of black-clad figures hovered by the entrance, while a sudden chill breezes through. Past nights have been unusually warm but that Friday night, it felt as if the city joined in. The faces in the dim light all looked eager. And then the doors opened.

One of the markers of the fall season has always been Halloween and after a few years of staying in the country, I finally acclimated to the festivities towards the end of October. It hasn’t always been like that. Where I’m from, we never really celebrated October 31st or Halloween the same way. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic culture, what we celebrated was November 1st and 2nd, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – “Undas.” And instead of wearing costumes, going trick-or-treating and indulging in good ol’ Halloween debauchery, we stopped to honor the dead.

As early as three in the afternoon, my family and I would start heading towards the PUBLIC cemetery in our small town in Pampanga, Philippines. We would bring food in Tupperware containers, flowers and candles. At the gate of the cemetery, vendors selling strands of sampaguita and candles would come up to us to try to sell some of their goods. The fishball vendors have set up their stands on the side, with jars of assorted sauces ready for dipping.

We make our way through a tiny city of tombs, past makeshift karaoke machines and groups of people either praying, laughing or eating. Most of the tombs are laid atop of each other, structures of solid cement. We find my grandparents’ tomb and already there are candles and wreaths of flowers. We pray, we eat, we tell stories. We honor, we celebrate. In the tiny city of tombs, we need not don masks or costumes because we are in the company of ghosts, of spirits.

I recall all of these things when I first started seeing photos for the MUMU show on Instagram. Along with rituals and traditions I grew up with, there were also ghost stories, sentinel spirits and the infamous “White Lady” apparitions I was familiar with. As spooky as this photo looked, it also felt strangely familiar:

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Source: Susmaryosep & Co.

Borne out of longing to tell the stories they heard from their grandmothers as kids, long-time friends and creative partners Irene Faye Duller and Julie Rosete Munsayac dreamed of turning these stories into an experiential project. MUMU was born, a multisensory, art-theater experience, a celebration of death and a meditation of darker selves.

“Mumu” is the Tagalog derivative of the word for ghost (multo) coupled with the Filipino’s linguistic penchant of repeating the first syllable of certain words (usually used on names i.e. Junjun, Tintin, Lotlot but also for other words that may be deemed “uncouth”). Mumu is ghost, spirit, anything haunted.

I was psyched. As a Pinay thousands of miles away from the homeland, this was the closest thing to the traditional Undas I grew up with. 

Fiending for (More) Fiction

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

After doing my #FinestFiction reading challenge in the summer where I attempted to read the longlist for the Man Book Prize, I was hooked. Not only did I push myself to read out of my usual genres, I also stuck with some books I would’ve otherwise put down already. I learned a lot. And I discovered authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, like Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid, whose books will be permanently etched in my memory.

In the spirit of that reading challenge, I’m doing another one. More than I actually followed the Man Booker Prize, I’m a huge fan of the National Book Foundation. Headed by Lisa Lucas (!), the NBF is the presenter of the annual National Book Awards. Last year’s NBA fiction titleholder is Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.

This year, I’ve decided that I will be reading the fiction shortlist, a compilation of five mighty books:

Out of this list, I’ve read three so far and I’m slowly making my way through Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing. One of my favorite books this year is nominated — Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I’m currently working on reviews for both Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, two books I also really liked.

The ceremony is on November 15 in New York City, which means I’ve got about two weeks to finish and review the books. If you’re looking for a book to fall in love with, I guarantee any of these because the finalists for the NBA for fiction have always been stellar. In addition to these fiction titles, I’m also reading one book shortlisted for the nonfiction prize (Marsha Gessen’s The Future is History) and another one shortlisted for poetry (Danez Smith’s Do Not Call Us Dead: Poems).

National Book Awards for Fiction shortlist:
Judges are Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak, Jacqueline Woodson (Chair)

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
Haris Abadi is a man in search of a cause. An Arab American with a conflicted past, he is now in Turkey, attempting to cross into Syria and join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But he is robbed before he can make it, and is taken in by Amir, a charismatic Syrian refugee and former revolutionary, and Amir’s wife, Daphne, a sophisticated beauty haunted by grief. Told with compassion and a deft hand, Dark at the Crossing is an exploration of loss, of second chances, and of why we choose to believe—a trenchantly observed novel of raw urgency and power.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging, The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Which one are you rooting for? 
Tell me in the comments below!

#FinestFiction Wrap-Up: Who Will Win This Year’s Man Booker Prize?

Sunday Spotlight

For the past two months, I’ve incorporated titles long-listed for the Man Booker Prize on my reading list. I tried to read every single book religiously and although the outcome is far from perfect, I’m happy to say that I met about 80% of my goal.

My #FinestFiction reading challenge was a challenge in pushing through with genres I’m not used to, and a commitment to expand my reading with work that I wouldn’t have read otherwise.

There were books that I absolutely loved. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is one, and so is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. And then there were books that I started but never finished like Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. There were also books that I didn’t care for that I ended up loving, like Ali Smith’s Autumn and Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1: A Novel.

I had a lot of fun as I made my way through each book, and I think I’m going to do it again next year. There’s nothing like reading out of your usual picks, out of your comfort zone to push you into learning more about the world, a process that ends up with you learning more about yourself.

The short list was announced back in September and I was a little shocked that the titles I was anticipating to be on the list weren’t (!) — I thought Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was going to be a shoo-in! Nevertheless, I’m quite happy *with* some of the titles that made it.

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Elmet by Fiona Mozley (read my book review)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (read my book review)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
4 3 2 1: A Novel by Paul Auster (book review out soon!)
History of Wolves: A Novel by Emily Fridlund
Autumn: A Novel by Ali Smith (read my book review)

At first I was rooting for Hamid, and then Smith, and then Auster, and then Mozley. Right now, I can’t really make up my mind because any of these four are plausible winners. At this point, I’d be happy for any of these titles to win the prize.

Who are you rooting for?
Sign up below to win a copy of the winning title! 

October’s Reading List: 5 Things You Should Know

Sunday Spotlight

ima read ima read ima read
–Zebra Katz

While the line from Zebra Katz above is used in an entirely different context, ima take it. In the midst of intense political upheavals, a crumbling of the U.S. government at the hands of the incompetent-in-chief, I have Katz lines in my heart and head.

The last few weeks had me immersed in the voices of European writers as I tried to wrap up my #FinestFiction challenge. After the shortlist was announced, with about two books left in the pile, I decided to forego the last one and wring my hands in frustration at the current title I was holding. I just don’t get it is an honest way of saying it, but I prefer I think I’m way off my preferred genres but I will give this another try. And so I did, until I came to a point where I just didn’t care anymore.

The first day of the month found me in sunny Los Angeles, and I was grateful to be holding Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in my hands. I was somewhere in the Fairfax District, drinking an overpriced matcha latte accompanied by an equally overpriced avocado toast. I was really going for an aesthetic that matched Ng’s book cover with my food and drink, but I realized after I’ve devoured everything that I was too engrossed in the text to even remember taking an Instagram-worthy post. I was mildly comforted and repulsed at the same time with the thought. Such are the times.

October is officially fall, although it feels like the onset of a real summer here in the Bay Area. I was going to say that now would be a good time to cozy up with a book, but when is it never a good time? My commitment to reading last month’s list is half-assed at best, because I only really finished four out of the eight I listed. I tried to finish three others (one was written in deep Tagalog, the other one was too weird, and the last just didn’t interest me). The eighth one I never even bothered to crack upon because I knew it wasn’t really up my alley.

I want to be more intentional this time, and really trust my gut feeling when it comes to literature. Sure, there is a lot to gain by being exposed to other genres and books I wouldn’t normally pick up. At the same time, I feel like I wasted hella time giving some of these titles chances, only to give up halfway. Lesson(s) learned.

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Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) by Celeste Ng
Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound) by Min Jin Lee
Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Rachel Khong
Don’t Call Us Dead (Amazon | Indiebound) by Danez Smith
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Amazon | Indiebound) by China Miéville
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m so excited for this month’s list which is composed books by three Asian women authors, a queer black poet, a queen Latina author and an English fantasy fiction writer. I’ve got six brilliant books, which I may be tempted to add some more if I finish the list early. Here are five more things to know about October’s reading list:

  1. Three of these books are shortlisted for the National Book Foundation awards (Smith’s for poetry, and Machado and Lee’s for fiction).
  2. Half of my reading list is supplied by the book subscription company Book of the Month which I truly adore. Sign up here!
  3. I just reviewed a book (Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City) chosen by Rachel Khong for a quarterly magazine in Oakland.
  4. Miéville’s book is as timely as ever as the October Revolution led by Vladimir Putin happened in October 25, 1917 (or November 7, new style) and here we are in 2017, a decade later caught up in election scandals with Russia.
  5. And that there will definitely be more books added to this list since I’m already halfway through the third one.

Are you reading any of these books right now? Let me know in the comments below!

Five Books You Have to Read This Year

Sunday Spotlight

It’s about to be sweater weather. Cuffing season. Time to layer up as the year comes to an end and breeze through the chills with a warm cup of cocoa and the next best thing: a real good book.

The second year of Libromance has been busier, with more titles and more features, a reading challenge and more on the way. It’s been an exhilarating ride with new releases too, as I widen my own repertoire of books to be read from outside the U.S.

I am particularly in awe of books by women that have made it to my reading list, and what better way is there to end the year than by reading them? From lists I’ve made last year which included best-of’s, most of those listed were by men. Quite overwhelmingly. Whitehead, Nguyen, De Botton. There are days when I do question my own taste, but I can’t really help but be drawn to work that moves me, regardless of who the writer is.

This time around though, I’ve been engaged with the work of several women who have made me cry, questioned my beliefs, had me heaving with fury at midnight. From tales about love, family and friendship, these books are guaranteed to stay with you for awhile after you’ve read them, even throughout your whole lifetime, as they do with me.

Here are five books I recommend reading by the year ends:

9781501126062Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Why this book: If you’re looking for a book about family and all of its tender and brutal complications, this is for you. Set in Mississippi, Ward’s book also deals with being haunted by the past and the present, from poverty to drugs to love.

35711376Elmet by Fiona Mozley (book review out next week!)

Why this book: I’m not really into gothic literature but this won me over. A tale of a small family — Daniel, Cathy and Dad — somewhere in the outskirts of a small town in Ireland, this book looks at the intricacies of living outside the norm, and the depths of what people will do for family.

9781101870730Autumn by Ali Smith

Why this book: Ali Smith was an unknown figure to me before I embarked on my #FinestFiction reading challenge, but I feel like a whole new world has just opened up. This book is about an unlikely friendship and how to view the world upside down.

y648Hunger: A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay (book review out this week!)

Why this book: Because Gay writes truthfully, painfully, beautifully. This book is Gay’s memoir about her trauma and how she’s learned how to cope with it. It is about one person’s experience with food, family, desire and intimacy.

61s1ostd2bgl-_sx346_bo1204203200_The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Why this book: This is a searing but also complicated story of India — complete with culture, societal and political upheavals. This is the story of outlaws and misfits. Of women conquering the world’s demands on them, the most awaited from Roy since The God of Small Things.

Have you read or read any of these books? Are you planning to read any or all of them? Let me know in the comments below!

Falling Hard for September’s Book List

Sunday Spotlight

With each new season comes the promise of new releases and must-reads — consider me stoked as I explore this month’s book list!

I’ve been hard at work with my #FinestFiction reading challenge and a few things I’ve learned from immersing myself in the Man Book Prize 2017 longlist:

  • Reading Irish literature was a new experience, although I originally started with John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies which isn’t part of the list.
  • I don’t think I’m smart enough for some titles, because I just don’t get them. Case in point: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo.
  • I had to put a book down without finishing it, because it bored me to death. Do I just need to be more patient? I was about 1/3 into the book before I realized that it wasn’t really working out for me. Sorry, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

I’m down to the last few titles on the list, and I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of the shortlist on September 13.

But back to this month’s goodies. The titles from the longest are included and I’ve been really purposeful as well about other titles that I wanted to include. I want my reading list to always reflect the social and political realities of the day, an ode to one of my core beliefs: the power of literature to shape and influence change.

A lot of the titles are around immigration and the struggles that come along with it. As an immigrant myself, I gravitate towards literature that explores and illuminates this topic, a universal theme of life and survival.

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33621427Home Fire: A Novel by Kamila Shamsie
Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed. 

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The Mortifications by Derek Palacio
In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

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Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Once a year, on All Souls’ Day, it is said in Ireland that the dead may return. Solar Bones is the story of one such visit. Marcus Conway, a middle-aged engineer, turns up one afternoon at his kitchen table and considers the events that took him away and then brought him home again. Funny and strange, McCormack’s ambitious and other-worldly novel plays with form and defies convention. This is profound new work is by one of Ireland’s most important contemporary novelists. A beautiful and haunting elegy, this story of order and chaos, love and loss captures how minor decisions ripple into waves and test our integrity every day.

35711376Elmer by Fiona Mozley
Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

32569560The Windfall by Diksha Basu
For the past thirty years, Mr. and Mrs. Jha’s lives have been defined by cramped spaces, cut corners, gossipy neighbors, and the small dramas of stolen yoga pants and stale marriages. They thought they’d settled comfortably into their golden years, pleased with their son’s acceptance into an American business school. But then Mr. Jha comes into an enormous and unexpected sum of money, and moves his wife from their housing complex in East Delhi to the super-rich side of town, where he becomes eager to fit in as a man of status: skinny ties, hired guards, shoe-polishing machines, and all.

302446264 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Nearly two weeks early, on March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four identical Fergusons made of the same DNA, four boys who are the same boy, go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Athletic skills and sex lives and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Each Ferguson falls under the spell of the magnificent Amy Schneiderman, yet each Amy and each Ferguson have a relationship like no other. Meanwhile, readers will take in each Ferguson’s pleasures and ache from each Ferguson’s pains, as the mortal plot of each Ferguson’s life rushes on.

1734867Luha ng Buwaya by Amado V. Hernandez
A novel. Barrio peasants led by a local schoolteacher fight greed and oppression and discover a new faith in themselves.

 

 

33283659Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

30212107Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

I’ve got some major reading to do this month! Are you diving into any of these books? Share them in the comments below and happy reading!

What the Hell is a “Beach Read”?

Sunday Spotlight

As this heatwave flings itself in the usually chilly Northern California, it can fool us into thinking of getting another beach read, more time under the sun, a momentarily lapse of fog-blanketed rooftops in September.

I’ve never really understood the concept “beach reads” to begin with, but I do know it’s a huge market. Maybe it’s the thought that you can’t really do anything else when you’re laying in the sand, with the ocean’s waves at the tip of your toes other than engage with a book that cinches it, but I have some qualms.

To be honest, I’ve found the idea quite weird. What is a beach read anyway? I came across this wonderful think piece from The Guardian awhile ago:

…the essence of the beach read, most could agree, was more of a mood than anything else: attached to vacation, the book shouldn’t have any really weighty themes or social significance. It should be enjoyable and easy, with brisk pace and simple diction. An element of fantasy – either of the Straubian-gentrified Brooklyn type, the super-macho-spy-novel type, or the unicorns-and-feudal-lords type – is generally involved.

Above all, the reader shouldn’t feel they’re doing intellectual work. It’s all right if the beach read is a tearjerker, a bone-chiller or an adrenaline pumper: what it must never, ever be is something that gets the old neurons firing.

Oh my god, for reiteration: “…the reader shouldn’t feel they’re doing intellectual work.” 

Some of the things that this piece pointed out worth noting is that the term is also gendered, as more “chick lit” is labeled as a beach read. I kind of see the point of reading as a sinful indulgence back in the days, thus being at the beach correlates to a kind of hedonism but other than that single point, I find the idea ludicrous.

I took Juan Severo Miguel’s Habang Wala Pa Sila with me when I went to Culebra in Puerto Rico, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees when I was in Boracay and in Palawan in the Philippines and just recently, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies while in Tulum in México. I don’t know if books on Filipino poetry, refugees and queer Irishmen surviving their times can hardly count as “enjoyable and easy” reading.

Books for me are for exploring other worlds, other people’s stories and other lives, for discovering truths that bring us closer to ourselves, for expanding our realms of un/familiarity, for teaching us that we know nothing in this world, in the gentlest of ways.

Reading requires a certain internal capacity of openness and understanding, a willingness to have your beliefs challenged.

I can’t possibly imagine doing that at the beach, when the mere fact of one’s physical presence by the water is already a lot on the senses. To drink up the blue of the ocean, the expanse of the sky, the brine in the air and the sound of waves crashing is enough to make you feel the most alive. How can you make room for anything else?

If this is one reason why beach reads should not feel like the reader is doing any intellectual work, then you’ve got reading all wrong. I’d rather point to the industry that has marketed this strategy, because it does injustice to both pursuits. If anything, time at the beach should make us feel more connected to the world around us, an experience that reading also leaves us with.

So next time you go to the beach, think twice. Stay present to what’s in front of you, whether it’s saltwater or a world imprinted on a page.

 

Filipina in México: Drug Wars & Duterte

Sunday Spotlight

It felt good to say peace out to the U.S. for about a week, as I flew across and past the southern border of the country.

México was the closest thing to home for a Filipina who grew up in the tropics, transplanted in the foggy coast of the Bay Area. I yearned to be away from the toxic rhetoric that Trump spewed 24/7, and I wanted to put as much distance as I could between white supremacists and my queer, brown body.

As the plane made its way to the Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the irony. Just a few days before I left the Bay was when I first found out about Kian Loyd Delos Santos. The 17-year old from Caloocan City in the Philippines was murdered by the police, on accounts of being a drug pusher/courier/runner. President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “War on Drugs” has claimed 12,000 lives, with the number of extrajudicial killings rising every day.

So there I was, heading to a country whose people Trump and his supporters have vowed to build a wall against, a country which has also been fighting its own drug war.

What’s a Filipino living in America to do?

The sun was high up as I stepped out of the airport. The heat and humidity felt familiar. On a ferry to Isla Mujeres, I sought to shake Trump off my mind as my senses drank in the beauty of the ocean, a glistening blue that lulled you. Surprisingly, that sentiment was affirmed by souvenirs and wares sold on sidewalk stalls: trucker hats with the words “F*ck Trump” on them, the ultimate anti-MAGA dad hats.

While Trump was fading in my mind, Kian was becoming more and more prominent. I was physically away from the States but my social media feeds and timelines weren’t.   There were many stories and articles about Kian’s death, whose mother was an overseas Filipino worker forced to come home to his son’s funeral. There were many speculations, as many as the number of Duterte’s opposition who kept showing up at Kian’s wake.

I found it interesting that just about a year ago, I read a story online that featured two books Duterte was reading: a nonfiction title about Southeast Asia and what do you know — El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ioan Grillo. I don’t know much about the book, but I hope he realizes that the drug war he’s created and the level of impunity he’s unleashed is not the solution.

Whenever I think of the Mexican drug war, I remember what former President Vicente Fox said when I met him back in 2010: aren’t the customers from up north, the Americans? While the situations aren’t entirely similar, the viewpoint of crushing drug peddlers — usually poor people and worse, minors, women and children — does little to end the toxic industry. 

Women in Translation: Five Women Authors You Need to Read for #WITMonth

Sunday Spotlight

August seems to be a gift for lovers of the printed word: August 9 is National Book Lovers’ Day, and I just recently discovered that it is also Women in Translation Month.

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Founded by Meytal Radzinski, WITmonth was first celebrated in 2014 aiming to honor the work of women writers and to give recognition to their work in translation. Apparently, only 30% of work that has been translated in English are by women. This means that there is still so much literature out there, from critical and necessary voices, that the rest of the world don’t have access to.

There are some complexities though that I do want to acknowledge, such as the assignation of English as the de facto language of the world, and how this celebration caters to English speakers and readers only. It can be said in the same vein that we all need to seek out the work, voices and stories written in other languages, by perhaps learning a little bit of other languages ourselves.

I also have my own self-criticism when it comes to language. Even though my first language is an ethno-dialect (Kapampangan, since I grew up in the province of Pampanga in the Philippines) followed by Tagalog, I can read and write more effectively in English. I guess you can say that that’s how pervasive and all-encompassing Western influences are in my home country, but I’ll save that story for another post.

But complexities within the self, in the translation and publishing industries aside, I am ecstatic that at the moment, there is movement towards a global collaborative project to help remedy the discrepancy between the amount of works by women published in English translation, and how they are critically received. And I am all for it.

Three writers come to mind immediately: Filipino writer Lualhati Bautista, Hungarian writer Magda Szabó and Rabih Alameddine’s book An Unnecessary Woman.

51cdofnjrql-_sx287_bo1204203200_I read and reviewed Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos a few weeks ago, a novel about a family who survived martial law in the Philippines. The book was written entirely in Filipino and it took me some time to get through parts of it. I wanted to read more texts by Bautista after finishing the book, to delve more into Filipino literature specially work written only in our language. Still, I knew that there was a lot of significance in ensuring that her work is also accessible to non-Filipino folks, who could gain a lot in understanding the people’s historical and political contexts.

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The Door by Magda Szabó was another searing read, set in a small town in Hungary.The book was originally published in 1987 and was translated in 1995 for American publication by Stefan Draughon, and again in 2005 by Len Rix for British publication. This was a searing read for me. I still remember Emerence, one of the main characters in book, quite vividly.

51vj2zhpybl-_sx333_bo1204203200_I remembered Alameddine’s book An Unnecessary Woman too, a book about a woman who translated books and noted classics for herself, starting with a new book at the beginning of every year. A woman who reveled in the company of books, in the dutiful work of translating, not for other people but only for herself.

Other than these titles, I haven’t really come across other books by women authors in translation, but it’s something I want to read more of. This list from Words Without Borders is aspirational, and I’ve noted so many titles that I plan on adding to my own TBR list.

I’m particularly interested in the work of Asian writers like Han Kang, although I wouldn’t shy away from Svetlana Alexievich or Elana Ferrante. I want to read about perspectives that challenge the American norm, style and voice. I want to engage in text that views the world outside of my own very Western-centric bubble.

After combing through lists online and this non-exhaustive trove of newly translated work by women authors, here are five women authors you and I should read this year:

Han Kang
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The South Korean novelist Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on Tuesday for her surreal, unsettling novel, The Vegetarian, about a woman who believes she is turning into a tree. Widely praised by critics in the United States and Britain, The Vegetarian is Ms. Han’s first work to be translated into English. (The New York Times)

Qiu Miaojin
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“One day it dawned on me as if I were writing my own name for the first time,” the narrator of Notes of a Crocodile declares in the early pages. “Cruelty and mercy are one and the same.” This way of reframing dualities within a binary system — and pummeling that system — is the soul of this thrillingly transgressive coming-of-age story by the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin. Bonnie Huie’s translation is nothing short of remarkable — loving, even; one gets the sense that great pains have been taken to preserve the voice behind this lush, ontological masterwork. (The New York Times)

Carmen Buollosa
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Carmen Boullosa (born in Mexico City in 1954) is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published fifteen novels, the most recent of which are El complot de los románticos, Las paredes hablan, and La virgen y el violin, all with Editorial Siruela in Madrid. Her works in English translation include They´re Cows, We’re Pigs; Leaving Tabasco; and Cleopatra Dismounts, all published by Grove Press, and Jump of the Manta Ray, with illustrations by Philip Hughes, published by The Old Press. Her novels have also been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Russian. (Words Without Borders)

Svetlana Alexievich
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In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature. (The Guardian)

Basma Abdel Aziz
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Basma Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist, writer, and sculptor. A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, she is the author of several works of nonfiction. In 2016 she was named one of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers for her debut novel, The Queue, which was also nominated for the longlist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. She lives in Cairo. (Words Without Borders)

If you have any other recommendations, leave them in the comments below and happy WITmonth!

Books for Days: My August Reading List

Sunday Spotlight

A quick update: I met my reading goals last month! Every book in my July reading list was crossed off, with a day to spare (which gave me a good head start for August).

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You can find my book reviews here, with another one coming out next week for Magda Szabó's The Door:

I Paint My Reality by Frida Kahlo
The Botany of Desire 
by Michael Pollan
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
 by Arundhati Roy
Gagamba: A Novel by F. Sionil José

I usually read 4-5 books a month, giving myself a week to finish each one. But my #FinestFiction reading challenge has actually challenged me to change it up a bit, so that I can meet my goal of reading all of the books longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize by October.

And I'm off to a great start! I've already finished two on my list, and I'm slowly making my way through two new ones. Two of the books on the list are actually advanced reader copies, and I'm so delighted that I got the chance to read and review them. I also started using Book of the Month, which lets me buy copies at a much cheaper price.

I'm doubling my reading efforts this month, and already I feel a slight tinge of anxiety because I know I'm on a schedule. So how do I manage to read up? The biggest thing is cutting up screen time. If there is any indication of how I should find more time to read, the previous week was a successful trial.

In a day, I managed to find about 2-3 hours of reading time — on my breaks at work, when I'm moving my car (which is every two hours), after dinner, before bed. On days when I'm not in meetings, you can usually find me curled up on the couch, with a book in hand and a cup of tea in the other.

On Tuesday last week, I finished Mohsin Hamid's Exit West on my lunch break. It felt so disorienting to be immersed in the life of the main characters of the book, this couple who fled their homeland, and know so many intimate details about them while I slowly walked back to my desk.

I also noticed how a thread of connection in each title coarses through what I read: the edition of The Door I have is written with a preface by Ali Smith, whose book I'm getting ready to read in a couple of weeks. Doors were also a common theme in Exit West, as I stared at many, many entryways in my physical realm.

With each book I finish, my world gets bigger. And I am humbled by the fact that the more I learn, the less I know. I let it all sink in. I like to think that there are many, many rooms within my body, where each of the most memorable characters I've read live. Emerence from The Door lives somewhere in my chest, Anjum from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness behind a door in my left shoulder.

Here are this month's titles:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Amazon | Indiebound)
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (Amazon | Indiebound)
The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman (Amazon | Indiebound)
How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry (Amazon |Indiebound)
Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado (Every Third Saturday) by Words Anonymous, edited by Juan Miguel Severo (Goodreads)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Amazon | Indiebound)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Amazon | Indiebound)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Amazon | Indiebound)

If you've read or are currently reading any of these titles, let me know in the comments below. Happy reading!