Every perspective has purpose and power, and yet so many voices still go unheard. Women in Translation month – a project committed to giving literary space to women, non-binary and intersex people around the world of all races, languages and cultures – is celebrated every August in the book world as a way to address that imbalance. Thanks to publishers like Fitzcarraldo, Daunt and And Other Stories, our bookshelves are hopping more continents and becoming more accessible than ever.
Some of my favourite books this year are translated novelists and writers: Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey), Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays (Angus Davidson), Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais (Sophie Hughes), and Annie Ernaux’s forthcoming Getting Lost (Alison L. Strayer). It takes a kindred, porous touch to translate the work of an author, elevating and honouring its essence.
In this month’s booklist, there are varying approaches to the act of translation – whether that’s translating language or decoding online interactions, articulating the human psyche, queerness, or difficult power dynamics, and constructing a knotted memoir. This column goes behind the counter of a British Chinese takeaway, a boat off the coast of Southern Chile, the streets of Gothenburg, and a worn-out foyer of a Belfast apartment block.
All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt
Melissa Febos calls memoir writing “an act of translation”, and I think Irish writer Seán Hewitt’s All Down Darkness Wide amplifies that. It’s a sensual history of love and loss, coming-of-age and lapsed Catholicism, and finding the language for the heaviest emotions that are shouldered in queer life.
The book interpolates Hewitt’s story with bigger, bountiful queer and literary histories, turning often to the work of esoteric Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (the title is taken from Hopkins). Still, this is a deeply personal account of growing up gay and lonely in Liverpool, to his ultimate encounter and relationship with the inscrutable, all-encompassingly depressed Elias, a futile but formative romance and troubles set against the streets of Gothenburg.
Seán’s observations stop you in your tracks, with his poet’s precise and potent touch. “He was both the man I loved and the person who wanted to kill the man I loved,” he writes of Elias. Seán offers no resolutions or redemption, but in such achingly beautiful, resplendent writing on his darkest moments, we find hope. Pick up his stunning book of poetry Tongues of Fire and linger longer in Hewitt’s tender words.
Common Decency by Susannah Dickey
Susannah Dickey’s debut novel Tennis Lessons showcased her ability to write about interior lives in a way that’s as disorientating and excruciating as it is moving and enchanting, a coming-of-age story for awkward young women written in the immersive second-person. Witty, disgusting and charming, I thought about Susannah’s turn of phrases long after I’d finished.
Her second novel, Common Decency, is set once again in Northern Ireland, following two women who live in the same Belfast apartment building. Their first person narratives are split into chapters, each one from the other’s perspective on their own singular troubles, or shared fleeting moments, though not always consciously. Lily is consumed by her mother’s death, and Siobhan is in a storm of an affair. Fixated on her love for an older married man, Siobhan doesn’t notice Lily in the block’s hallway, who contrastingly keeps a resenting eye on her neighbour. She only sees Siobhan’s life as more colourful and illustrious than her own, and as Lily’s obsession grows, things get sinister and riveting.
It is incredibly paced – an intense, strange slow-burner that hurtles towards a psychological thriller of a climax, ricocheting between Siobhan and Lily’s points of view. Dickey writes so deftly and with so much empathy on the human need for connection, the monstering of others, and the devastation of miscommunications and misgivings that fester in the modern world.
I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel
“I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am,” says the protagonist of Sheena Patel’s acerbic debut novel, I’m A Fan. From that frothy sentence, we’re headfirst into her fertile obsessions and social media scrollings, a one-sided affair with an abhorrent famous older artist, and entanglements with fandom, both online and off.
The narrator is as fierce with her intelligence as she is her spite. She’s acutely aware of the systems she is shaped by – gender norms, race, power dynamics and the upper echelons of the art world she’s shut out of, and a social media obsession. As unhinged as the times we’re living in, she’s a protagonist that languishes in the extremities of human behaviour. But somehow, it’s refreshing to see her face the ills we have all brushed against head-on without fear – just straight, feral fury. I found myself both repulsed and a bit jealous of how she acts out her rage, in ways free of decorum or taste. It’s a powerful page-turner – the chapters are super brief and potent, like social media captions.
What a debut. Patel is scathing and funny, and always startling in capturing human encounters that hold a mirror to society’s most rotten parts, propelled along by a cast of toxic men and cruel women, fuckboys and frenemies. I’ll miss this protagonist, even though she terrified me a bit.
Takeaway by Angela Hui
The Chinese takeaway – an unequivocal pillar of British culture and a staple on the UK’s high streets and village centres – is in decline. Amid racist stigma, gentrification, and the rise of delivery apps, a rich history of working class immigrants in Britain is being abraded.
Angela Hui’s memoir and social document takes us to her childhood spent behind the counter of the Lucky Star, her parents’ takeaway in the former mining village of Beddau, Wales. A food journalist who regularly appears in the excellent Vittles newsletter, Hui fluidly moves across the cultural, social, political, and intimately personal significances of British Chinese takeaways. It’s also a nourishing, emotionally textured account of her fraught journey to accepting her own culture and nationality as both a Chinese and Welsh woman, at times locking horns with her parents as she struggled with identity and a sense of belonging. There’s also a delight of recipes, family photographs, and illustrations by Georgina Leung.
The joys, hustle, conflicts and struggles behind and over the counter are captured in such vivid detail. Food is a true comfort, an ever-evolving cultural artefact, a peace offering and a vital language that transcends linguistics or societal barriers. The audiobook, which Angela narrates, is especially moving.
Click here to read Angelia Hui’s My Media Diet
How To Read Now by Elaine Castillo
In this book of cutting, stylish and bitingly funny essays, Elaine Castillo explores the politics and ethics of how we read – and that goes beyond books. There’s takes on the power of mixtapes and Wong Kar-wai films, white supremacy on social media, Jane Austen and even X‑Men. Elaine interrogates the limitations of thinking of reading as an empathy building exercise, art as identity, the calls to diversify our bookshelves without addressing the worldly systems shaping them. She questions the cult writers society lionises, the essay “Main Character Syndrome” and its takedown of the cult of Joan Didion is especially good and wickedly profane. I enjoyed having my perspective really challenged on things I thought I was anchored on – from books to wider media and relationships.
And at times you might actively disagree with the conclusions she draws, but isn’t that the point? Being a better reader means letting in other people’s interpretations, shedding the fuzzy cliches for the complex and chaos, and recognising the power of reading ruthlessly. While it demands a bit more of you and your Goodreads challenge checklist, it’s worth it.
Poukahangatus: Poems by Tayi Tibble
Maōri myth, family histories, the Twilight movies, sugar daddies, Kardashians: Tayi Tibble moves between the personal, political and pop culture in a beautiful debut book of poems. It’s about colonisation in all its forms, too – gender, generations, our cultures and behaviours, and media. The poems are purposeful and meaningful, with such incredible wit and graphic, gorgeous honesty.
“Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside” is a rumination on family, loyalty, and what we hold close – memories are like a grandmother keeping “wishbones from chicken carcasses /in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge”. She totally draws me in with her exquisite detail – on adolescence as the horror show it truly is, the complicated push-pull of culture amid colonialism, womanhood, the bursting seams of identity politics. Tibble’s poems jump off the page, and together their pulsing veins interconnect into the expansive, clear-eyed view of a talented young Indigenous woman. She’s a favourite of Lorde’s, and Tibble’s poems are a lighthouse for anyone grasping at the open threads of all their many selves. Xoe Hall’s striking cover art complements the firecracker poetry.
Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death and Ambivalence by Lynne Tillman
Acclaimed, legendary novelist and writer Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks was last year’s horniest reissue (via Peninsula Press), a mapping of one young woman’s truncated encounters in dive bars and one-night stands that reflected a corrosive portrait of sex and desire in the ’70s.
Mothercare is an autobiographical essay, which sees Tillman turn her considered and curious eye to the “gruelling obligation” of caregiving, shifting mother-child relationship dynamics, and frustrations around the American healthcare system. She recounts years spent with her sisters caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with the rare and often misinterpreted Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. It spans across a wearing 11 years of misdiagnoses and tough questions of responsibility, while watching a spirited woman decline into dependency. And yet Tillman captures such complexities around the human condition without sentimentality and, as always, makes vital our deepest flaws – she is as unsparing of her mother as she is herself, and is incredibly frank about loving and living with a difficult parent. Realistic and imbued with her familiar candour, I’m grateful for the strength and presence she packs on the page.
I loved this New York Times interview with Tillman, too. It’s her at her best – mordant humour and a really canny, caustic view on tastes and “bad” writing, organising her bookshelf, ethics and morality in novels, and Kafka laughing out loud when he read his own writing.
Death by Landscape by Elvia Wilk
Elvia Wilk explores how we can live and write our way out of our current perspective on Earth with Death by Landscape. A collection of essays described as “fan non-fiction”, she finds connections from Mark Fisher to Michelle Tea, Octavia Butler and Jenny Hval. These authors, artists and critics have a talent for building worlds in their literature and art, stretching things to the weirdest and eeriest limits. How can this thinking cement the foundations of a better world?
Wilk compellingly argues that giving space to the stranger narratives can inspire new approaches to our current and future problems, like wealth disparity, inequality and the climate crisis. We can renew human connections to nature, and instil greater responsibility even amid the society-wide disillusionment. It’s galvanising, scrappy and exciting writing that champions the “small explosions with far-reaching fragments.”
Peninsula Press republished Wilk’s excellent debut novel Oval this year, too, and it’s a punky thematic companion.
On Not Knowing by Emily Ogden
“The world burns, yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by”. Jarring and clarifying, On Not Knowing is a smouldering collection of essays that revels in the richness of ambivalence. The state of “not knowing”, scholar Emily Ogden finds, is when we live and love more fully. Being outside of knowledge, theorising, certain intelligences and bias can be liberating.
Ogden draws on personal experiences, like a miscarriage that concluded an unknown pregnancy and the speech of her twin children, and works from Baldwin to Baudelaire for her luminous and lyrical, succinct essays, from How to Come Back to Life to How to Have a One Night Stand. This isn’t a self-help manual, or a “no thoughts, head empty” treatise, but a perspective-shifter on the potentials of openness, and being on the raw edge of experience. A true pleasure to read.
Boulder by Eva Baltasar
Firstly, I’m calling in my favourite Instagram, @cigfluencers, for this chic book cover art. Boulder is the second book from Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches, which follows her amazing debut Permafrost.
The Spanish poet and writer’s narrator is a stubborn, self-reliant and massively horny cook on a ship off the coast of Chile, who becomes enamoured by Samsa, a woman who gives her the affectionate nickname Boulder. Though resistant to routine and structure, Boulder moves to Reykjavik to be with Samsa, tethered there by fleeting moments of intimacy painted in Baltasar’s electrifying prose. Eight years in, Samsa decides she wants a child.
Boulder anxiously watches her partner concede to the expectations of motherhood, transformed by hormones, water aerobics and multivitamins. Amid sexual trysts and growing tensions, Boulder searches for the mysterious sweet spot between her wants: freedom and connection. Baltasar has an innate talent for stretching the complexities of queer lives and predicaments into undulating adventure and tension.
What We Want by Charlotte Fox Weber
Psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber has found, through years of working with a various roster of clients, that a common question unites their problems: what do we really want?
The book focuses on 12 different wants and desires, and its client case studies are illuminating – the bright and bombastic Chloe who has an unending thirst for alcohol and attention, then Sara who finds herself caught between her polarised yearnings for freedom and stability. She writes insightfully and articulates emotions often kept in boxes and behind closed doors – the darker enclaves of love, power, sex, attention and more. In an internet marred by therapy-speak and a world dominated by the dopamine fix, Charlotte provides a clear-eyed and profound understanding of humanity that could inspire living more fully.
As Weber compellingly shows, therapy and opening ourselves up to our deepest desires can transform our lives. If you love the Esther Perel podcast, this one’s for you.