Quiscalus: Reading in Translation Book Club
We can’t speak all the languages, but we can do the next best thing: align our brains in the thought patterns, progressions, and images the languages produce. Reading books in translation helps us understand people, places, and ideas from around the world, from vantage points that aren’t filtered through our culture’s variety of gatekeepers.
Join us for a lively discussion of contemporary books-in-translation. Our discussions will be hybrid Zoom and in-studio events.
Club Information: You can join at any moment during the reading series, don’t worry if you miss the first or second book. We suggest up to a $50 donation for the class, but price is up to you on the payment portal. We want you here, talking about books from around the world! It will collect your information and help us plan. Even if you can’t come to every meeting, sign up for the class below.
Bright by Duanwad Pimwana, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul – Honorable mention in the Global Humanities Translation Prize
The first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English, Bright tells the story of a young boy who is collectively raised by his community after being abandoned by his father. For more from Pimwana, check out her short story collection Arid Dreams and her recent story “All Trash on the Eastern Side,” both translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to wait for him in front of some run-down apartment buildings, the confused boy does as told―he waits, and waits, and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt while extending his customers endless credit. Kampol also plays with local kids like Noi, whose shirt is so worn that it rips right in half, and the sweet, deceptively cute toddler Penporn.
Dueling flea markets, a search for a ten-baht coin lost in the sands of a beach, pet crickets that get eaten for dinner, bouncy ball fads in school, and loneliness so merciless that it kills a boy’s appetite all combine into Bright, the first-ever novel by a Thai woman to appear in English translation. Duanwad Pimwana’s urban, and at times gritty, vignettes are balanced with a folk-tale-like feel and a charmingly wry sense of humor. Together, these intensely concentrated, minimalist gems combine into an off-beat, highly satisfying coming-of-age story of a very memorable young boy and the age-old legends, practices, and personalities that raise him.
Little Bird by Claudia Ulloa Donoso, translated from the Spanish by Lily Meyer
What the publisher says: “After moving from Peru north of the Arctic circle to begin graduate school, Claudia Ulloa Donoso began blogging about insomnia. Not hers, necessarily – the blog was never defined as fact or fiction. Her blog posts became the bones of Little Bird, short stories with a nod to fervent self-declaration of diary entries and the hallucinatory haze of sleeplessness. Blending narration and personal experience, the stories in Little Bird stretch reality, a sharp-shooting combination of George Saunders and Samanta Schweblin. Characters real and unreal, seductive, shape-changing, and baffling come together in smooth prose that, ultimately, defies fact and fiction.”
What the translator says: “The stories in Little Bird transform the stuff of daily life—the mundane details and events that another writer might use to make an invented person seem more real—into surreal magic. She turns lawn mowing into performance art, bus rides into high drama, fly swatting into a life-or-death rescue mission.”
What Words Without Borders says: The stories in Little Bird accomplish a seemingly daunting task: namely, offering readers a sense of distance while also embracing the most visceral elements of the surreal. Add a few observations of life in Norway into the mix and the outcome is even more distinctive—a singular work that comes at the reader from unexpected angles.
Frontier by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Frontier opens with the story of Liujin, a young woman heading out on her own to create her own life in Pebble Town, a somewhat surreal place at the base of Snow Mountain where wolves roam the streets and certain enlightened individuals can see and enter a paradisiacal garden.
Exploring life in this city (or in the frontier) through the viewpoint of a dozen different characters, some simple, some profound, Can Xue’s latest novel attempts to unify the grand opposites of life–barbarism and civilization, the spiritual and the material, the mundane and the sublime, beauty and death, Eastern and Western cultures.
A layered, multifaceted masterpiece from the 2015 winner of the Best Translated Book Award, Frontier exemplifies John Darnielle’s statement that Can Xue’s books read “as if dreams had invaded the physical world.”
The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Kalyan Raman – Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature
From one of India’s best-known writers and the author of the National Book Award-longlisted One Part Woman comes a charming and surprising tale of an orphaned goat and the family that decides to take care of her, despite the potential cost to them.
From Kirkus: Poonachi, the goat of the title, arrives the way characters often do in fairy tales: strangely, under circumstances fraught with portent. She’s presented to an old man in a drought-stricken Indian village by a “giant” who needs “someone who will look after her properly.” The goat is feeble and the old man’s family is poor, but he and his wife nurse her with care. Still, life is always at least somewhat unstable: The government is nosy about Poonachi’s provenance, other goats treat her like an outcast, and a wildcat abducts and nearly kills her. Fighting her way to survival only frees her to more sophisticated disappointments, including lost children and thwarted romance; Murugan deftly sketches out a nanny-meets-billy, nanny-loses-billy scenario that’s as affecting as many human tales of unrequited love. Which is the point: In anthropomorphizing Poonachi, Murugan finds a path to describe the essence of humans’ struggle to survive while grasping for fleeting moments of joy and grace. Murugan can be openly comic about this, as when he satirizes the endless bureaucratic lines goats and their keepers endure. But he’s mostly straight-faced, in the tradition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a similar allegorical tale; translator Raman notes the connection to the classic, and, as with Orwell, the story is straightforward as a fable while open to interpretation. In its closing pages, the novel returns to its more mystical roots, and while it gives nothing away to say that the story is ultimately tragic—from the start, Poonachi’s life is a study in precariousness—Murugan subtly pays tribute to our capacity to stubbornly endure under the most difficult circumstances.
An affecting modern fable reflecting Murugan’s enchanting capacity to make a simple story resonate on many levels.