Tag: feminism

Small Crush: Sword and Sonnet

Many of the short stories I enjoyed most in 2018 came from one anthology – Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler. And before I’m going to tell you about the stories I loved, I need to emphasize how awesome the anthology as a whole is. It’s about battle poets (identifying as female or non-binary), and of course this concept grabbed my attention faster than any smashing opening line. Why, yes, please let me know everything about the power of poetry, about the wielders of war-winning words, about the searing sting of a single syllable!

The diversity of these stories is absolutely fantastic, much more so than you’re probably expecting! There are tales set in forests and tales among far-flung stars, there’s revolution, revenge, and revelation, and styles range from lyrical delicacy to effective bluntness. There was not a single story in this anthology that didn’t convey its vision or failed to engage me, even if it didn’t correspond with my preferred styles or topics.

Sword and SonnetAnd there were a lot of stories I enjoyed tremendously: After reading about all these vastly different word slingers, I should know that there is no such thing as the quintessential battle poet. But Gennesee of A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin by Hayley Stone somehow etched herself into my brain as just that, from the moment she sits waiting in her cell, sinister and full of hate, a victim and a perpetrator of war crimes … but still an artist. Another protagonist perceived as evil and in shackles at the beginning of her story is the witch Alejandra in El Cantar de la Reina Bruja by Victoria Sandbrook, and both stories find different and equally beautiful – but also painful – ways for seeking freedom and new beginnings through poetry.

The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts by A. Merc Rustad is probably my favorite story – it’s the perfect mix of myth, bold world-building, and traces of folktale (also, dinosaurs, and trees – would have been kind of hard to pack even more things I absolutely adore into just one story). Dulce et Decorum by S. L. Huang blew my away with the questions it brought up, questions you probably have faced if you ever saw common ground between poetry and war. And This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George was exactly up my alley because it features the difficulties of translation, and was about meeting and maybe coming to understand people of wildly different cultures. It was great fun, too, as should be expected of a story about settling intergalactic conflict via art conference.

Close runners-up to these favorites were Siren by Alex Acks (the lyrical voice and the scope of this story!), And the Ghosts Sang with Her: A Tale of the Lyrist by Spencer Ellsworth (a beautiful fairytale with a charming protagonist), The Firefly Beast by Tony Pi (great atmosphere in this elegant and action-packed tale set in China), and The Bone Poet and God by Matt Dovey (featuring a bear called Ursula who is also a shaman/poet).

These were the stories that appealed most to my personal taste. As I said, I found something worthwhile and engaging in every story of this anthology, and your favorites might be different ones. Be sure to check them out!

Translation Troubles: Gender

For everybody interested in the process of translating fiction, I’m going to post some snippets about specific problems that can cause distortions between the source and the translated text. Please keep in mind that I address mostly English to German. These two are closely related, but they’re also surprisingly different. They occupy just one tiny area of the whole field – different languages, different problems. Also: different genres, different problems, and apart from the odd outlier, I’m firmly rooted in speculative fiction and related genres. So: YMMV, greatly (and I’d love to hear about it!)

Gender is one aspect often forcing my translations to be more specific than the source text – and I have to make decisions (after asking the author, if possible) for things that were (deliberately) left undecided.

Every noun is gendered in German (and a lot of other languages). This is especially interesting when it comes to job titles and other personal nouns. I have to clarify the gender of every guard, cook, pilot, soldier, visitor, stranger, and so on. In the source text, these people are sometimes not important enough to know their gender, and sometimes it’s convenient to keep this information ambiguous. This option is nonexistent in translation, and neither am I able to refer to a “doctor” with a female pronoun – I would have needed to call her a “doctress” in the first place. So imagine the blast of translatorial joy, after a leader’s aide has been popping up on the pages now and then, when discovering in volume three of the series that she has been female all along!

Male forms are default in German; female forms are an extra effort. So female visibility is lowered in a lot of contexts. And stereotypes are prone to lingering in translations: the translator might not “see” a woman in a group of guards or officers, even if the writer imagined women among them.

A side-effect of these unavoidably gendered nouns is the fact that animals, artificial beings, and just about anything else is gendered, too: a robot, a dog, or a ghost are always “he”, an AI is “she”. There’s a neutral form, “it”, mostly used for certain objects. You don’t want to use it for persons (which are gendered as “he” or “she” anyway, unless they are girls. Yep, girls are “it” in German …)

And here’s the last bummer: All available options are of course not applicable to non-binary people. There are some proposals for non-binary pronouns which are either awkward (like she_he), or most people have never heard of them. The nice, practical option to use “they/them” is not working in German, I guess (you can adapt to innovations in language pretty fast, so I’m not 100% sure).

Frankly, I don’t know what I would do with “they” at the moment. It never came up till now, unfortunately (about time some new books with non-binary characters get translated). Ask my publisher, I guess. Try out a few things and strive to establish a solution that readers could get used to. And face a shitstorm, probably.

Small Crush: Wonder Woman

How can you not have a crush on Wonder Woman?
She is pure wish-fulfilling empowerment, without being debased by the male-gazey fits a Black Widow (and almost every other woman who ever wore a hero’s costume) has to suffer. If you can’t see that, and if you can’t understand how this is able to change the way a woman perceives herself in the world, you probably never struggled with the kind of roles stories had to offer, the kind of dreams you had access to.

It could have gone wrong in so many ways. Diana was destined to be born sexy yesterday. But lo and behold, every time the dreaded “oooh, so this is what a kiss feels like” scene was about to come up, Wonder Woman veered off into another direction. The whole romance was handled very thoughtfully.

Same goes for the camaraderie. My first love in fiction was epic fantasy, so I have this soft spot for ragtag, diverse groups of adventurers going on a quest. I liked Diana’s companions. And the scene when they free a Flemish village is pure joy for many reasons.

Wonder Woman movie release posterWhat I enjoyed most, though, was the movie’s beginning at Themyscira, showing a whole island of women at all levels of society. I could have watched this forever. Actually, I was able to watch it for quite some time, because Wonder Woman starts out slow-paced. Which would have been perfect, hadn’t the rest of the film been totally detached from these scenes. I felt there should have been some reconnection later on, anything to justify the time we spent with that awesome Amazon action.

(Talking about action: Why, oh why, do we still have to put a woman who’s all legs anyway in high heeled boots in 2017? No amazon worth her tiara would ever wear high heels to fight, when it’s all about balance and firm stance.)

The old superhero movie malady of too much thrashing and bashing also raises its ugly head in the finale. It looks good, but doesn’t show anything beyond that, especially in super slowmo and going on forever because the big bossfight has to be epic.

These issues with pacing and focussing are nitpicks, though, and compared to most superhero movies I have seen, Wonder Woman has a strong plot. But it often hinges on the assumption that women can’t do that. Wouldn’t do that. Diana does, astonishment arises, and she wins the day. The story depends on the element of surprise, on the outrage and innovation of a physically overpowering woman. I wonder how Wonder Woman’s plot will develop when this crutch falls away, when she’s accepted as what she is.

We’re not there yet. But Wonder Woman is a beginning, and I’m impatient. With heroines like Diana, we’ll get there.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)

I fell in love with Digger on the first pages of the comic, where the eponymous wombat heroine heads straight into trouble by doing what she does best: digging a tunnel. Alas, this particular tunnel was no masterpiece, so she gets lost and finds herself in a strange new and utterly wombat-free land. It took me a while to realize that Digger was a heroine (those wombat boobs are kind of hard to spot when you don’t expect them …), and I absolutely loved the fact that “it” turned out to be a “she”. A big share of the powerful, cool and odd charaDigger - Ursula Vernoncters of this graphic novel turned out to be a she. It’s a revelation to meet such a gathering of fine and engaging female leads in an adventure story, among them Grim Eyes (a warrior from a matriarchal hyena tribe), Murai (a destined but troubled human heroine) and Surka (a shrew with a new calling).

Yes, that’s a lot of furries! They inhabit quirky and well-rounded societies; and against the bigger backdrop of the odd world Digger finds herself in (filled with useless oracular slugs and hero vegetables, among others), they seem like the most ordinary people whose lives are turned inside out.

Although Digger is a comic, there’s plenty of text, and most of it put a big smile on my face. Digger’s witty commentary on the events made me root for this practical, down-to-earth heroine. As she is hauled into a story of epic dimensions and – for a wombat – terrifying mythical and magical qualities, her deadpan comments keep everything grounded. Aren’t we all wombats here, far from our comfort zone and thankful for every remark to put things into perspective?

What good is a god that does not fossilize?
– Digger

Digger is indeed somehow reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, and, while we’re at it, also of Jeff Smith’s Bone (in structure and premise). Both of these could inspire a love letter of their own, so for me that’s a big fat bonus. Snarky jokes, witty comments on religion, mythic overtones and sheer epicness aside, Digger goes right into the feels with its unusual cast of characters. It explores themes like domestic violence and ethical education in a graceful, unobtrusive way – and that’s something I have rarely seen done in fiction.

I stumbled upon Digger quite late – it had been published completely then (so I could just tear through reading day and night), it had won its Hugo Award, and it had – to my great disappointment – already finished its crazily successful crowdfunding campaign for a printed omnibus edition (which I still got afterwards, so not all was lost …). I’ve read it multiple times since then. After the first rush of excitement, I’m now able to fully appreciate what an effort it must have been to finish this huge, unwieldy thing. At nearly 900 pages, you need quite a solid table to read the omnibus edition. If they would offer a digital edition someday, I’d go for it immediately, as much as I love to have the big tome with the pickaxe on my shelf.

But back to the travails of the fabulous Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger. It was published as a webcomic, an unplanned work of someone with nearly no experience in the graphic novel field (see this old, old interview). The way the story unfolds, this is quite unbelievable. Kudos to Ursula, for pulling it off over the course of years without getting tangled up in the plot. Yes, there are some meandering parts of the story, but they fit into the whole quirky style and add depth instead of dragging on.
Digger - Ursula Vernon
So, Digger. One of the best things that happened in my life. It showed me how strong female characters could really look like and how the best thing in fantasy still is to get thrown into a world where anything can happen. Not that Digger would approve of it. But I do, a lot, and love this marsupial fiction with all my heart. Or with all my liver, if you’re more inclined to the hyena side of life.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)
Webcomic: 2004 – 2011: start reading here
Omnibus: Sofawolf Press 2013
Paperback (6 volumes): Sofawolf Press 2005-2011