EIBF 2020 – Wrap-Up Two

Last time out, I looked at two interesting sessions from this year’s (online) Edinburgh International Book Festival featuring two Women In Translation Month favourites, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Shokoofeh Azar, and today’s round-up does more of the same.  Two more sessions, two more great female writers and another pair of International Booker Prize contenders make for a couple of very intriguing sessions.  Without further ado, then, let’s head back off to Edinburgh to see where our vicarious travels are taking us today 🙂

First up on Thursday, the 20th of August, we had “Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: The Female Gaucho”, with the Argentinean writer discussing her IBP shortlisted-work The Adventures of China Iron.  Once again, we had an interpreter in attendance, but unlike the slightly stilted feel of the Rijneveld session, this was a raucous, rambling affair.  In addition to the writer and her interpreter, we were lucky enough to have the presence of both the book’s translators, Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, as well as a moderator, Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez, who wasn’t afraid to add her own comments.  While it made for a bit of a mess at times, it was fun to watch, and with Enriquez, a woman of wry humour, less concerned with timekeeping than with quality conversation, the talk ran over massively.  I had to duck out after an hour and fifteen minutes as I wanted to get something to eat before the next session 😉

The first part focused on the origins of the book, with reference to its inspiration, the epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro.  China, Martín’s wife, disappears from the poem at the very start, but Cabezón Cámara wanted to tell her story as a way of subverting the macho national epic in a variety of ways.  Both the poem and The Adventures of China Iron are works with a uniquely Argentinean flavour, but Enriquez pointed out a similiarity with a book retelling a classic of English literature, namely Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, with its recasting of a minor, oppressed female character as a heroine in her own right.  The book came about after the writer’s time on a scholarship in the US, where she had the idea of reclaiming Gauchesque literature by subverting it, taking up the challenge of writing a beautiful story about a horrible time.

Much of the talk looked at a couple of interesting themes, the connection of Argentina and the UK, and the situation of the local Indians (a word used deliberately by Cabezón Camara in the talk).  Liz, the British woman central to the book, represented the influence of the British Empire, which had a toehold in the country through industry and trade, and was also China’s window to the world, with the items in the carriage showing the young Argentinian woman just how big our planet really is.  Interestingly, Liz, who starts off as a teacher, gradually becomes just as much of a learner as China herself as the pair penetrate further into the heart of the country.

This is certainly true when the action moves to ‘Indian country’, and Cabezón Cámara explained how featuring Indigenous peoples in her novel was an attempt to debunk literary prejudices.  She is currently continuing her research into these cultures, and was insistent on her use of the word ‘Indios’ as she believes it is still relevant, especially as the genocide of Latin American Indians never stopped.  One of her closing comments was about how outsiders need to focus on what the Indians can teach us, including one telling quotation: “The end of time comes when the forests are finished, then the skies will fall upon us.”  When you look at what’s happening in the Amazon, it’s hard to disagree…

Even with Cabezón Cámara’s lengthy answers, and the time spent interpreting them, Enriquez’s generous approach to time-keeping meant that the two translators also got to say a fair amount. In terms of the challenges translating the book entailed, they mentioned the culturally specific nature of the landscape, the names and gaucho traditions, while the (invented) poetry used also posed several challenges, particuarly the style.  Interestingly, they also had issues with translating the (many) sex scenes (which the writer said were there because she had fun writing them!), with English lacking in the right sort of vocabulary for the task…  Then there was the issue of the name ‘China’ itself, and with bringing across into a new language the many connotations it holds in the original Spanish – as well as the tricky challenge of describing gauchos without conjuring up images of gun-slinging US cowboys!

Link to video of event: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/gabriela-cabezon-camara-the-female-gaucho

After a very quick break for a snack and a visit to the loo (thanks, Mariana…), it was back to work with Yoko Ogawa & Stephen Snyder: The Memory of Forgetting”. This session, moderated by journalist Catherine Taylor, took a look at the wonderful novel The Memory Police, and with the aid of interpreter Hitomi Yoshio, Ogawa took us through some of what went into creating the book.  This one was a very different affair to the session that preceded it, a crisp recorded 45-minute talk with a bilingual reading in the middle – good for the schedule, but perhaps a bit lacking in engagement.

An early question asked about the Ann Frank influence, and Ogawa admitted that The Diary of a Young Girl, which she read during her adolescence, was still a big influence on her.  The major idea she took from it was the tendency for humans to succumb to the invisible powers of society, but even so she tried to channel the idea of Ann’s diary, and the strength to resist, into her own book.  The Memory Police is a book detailing cultural amnesia, and Snyder commented that the way it was received in the Anglosphere was a surprise, owing largely to the timing of the translation’s release (just another example of the importance of culture and writing in difficult times…).

Ogawa also discussed the roles of the characters in the book, with her narrator far more of an observer than a protagonist, creating a certain distance between writer and creation.  Unlike in, for example, Fahrenheit 451, where the books are burnt but still remembered, it’s clear from the start that once something is ‘disappeared’ in the novel, it’s gone forever, but most of the island folk, including the old man who supports the narrator, find this only natural.  In response to a question on the diminishing role of the titular Memory Police as the novel progresses, Ogawa explains how it’s actually the world that becomes smaller and smaller, eventually shrinking into the tiny attic room inside the narrator’s house.  Apparently the Japanese title is very different and contains the word ‘crystal’, indicating that which remains, and in writing about these few remaining talismanic objects, Ogawa says she’s actually trying to describe the psychology of the people – something that’s impossible directly.

Another interesting question was why Ogawa wants to explore the darker side of human nature, control, violence and power.  In her reply, she said that if it’s easy to write, it doesn’t need to be written!  There are so many things that can’t be put into words, especially what’s inside our minds, and her novels are an attempt to capture that internal chaos.  At this point, Snyder commented that what attracted him to Ogawa’s work was the range and darkness of her fiction (comparing her books The Housekeeper and the Professor and The Memory Police).  Of course, this one was also a book about writing and novels, with the narrator’s determination to finish her book highlighting the power of fiction – which I’m sure we can all agree with.

Link to video of event: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/yoko-ogawa-stephen-snyder-the-memory-of-forgetting
(Sadly, Ogawa didn’t want the video to be available afterwards – I’m only leaving the link here in case that decision changes at some point…)

And that’s all we have time for today, but there’ll be more from Edinburgh, and the IBP shortlist, very soon, with trips to Mexico and Germany in store.  Both featured books take place in troubling times, but they go down very different routes – come back soon to find out more 😉

2 thoughts on “EIBF 2020 – Wrap-Up Two

  1. China has a rather common and different meaning here – China plate, mate – which I must admit did rather cause an issue for me.

    Did they discuss the choice to retranslate Martin Fierro. I can see why they did it, but I think it is a shame their translation was posted online.


    1. Paul – A specifically Cockney issue that didn’t really cause me any issues! With the poetry, wasn’t a lot of it cod-Fierro rather than the real thing? I think that’s why they made their own version. The main issue mentioned was with with the metre of the verse.


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