Many thanks to our friend Agata for writing this post about Eastern European women in translation for #WITMonth. Agata is a hippie at heart, happy to live out of her suitcase as long as she has her ukulele and a good book on hand. Born in Poland, she found a new home in Estonia. She is a book blogger over at aquedita.eu.
As a Polish woman who found a new home in Estonia, a deep connection to this part of the world is at the core of my identity. While I do acknowledge the diversity of traditions, beliefs, and attitudes in Eastern Europe, there is a shared history that established a common thread.
Lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to familiarize myself with more books written by women from this region, and I am pleased to report there are new titles being translated and published, even though the most well known authors seem to be the Nobel Prize laureates: Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich. Trust me when I say there is something available for every reader. Take out your passports and join me on this journey :)
For the sake of brevity, I decided to spotlight one book I’ve already read and one book from my TBR for #WITmonth for each country mentioned.
Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Olga Tokarczuk is one of the biggest names on the local scene and often mentioned as the next nominee for Nobel Prize in Literature. Thanks to her background as a psychologist, she is skillful at exploring the complexities of human psyche. A critics’ sweetheart, awarded the NIke—the most prestigious literary award in Poland.
Her bestselling novel takes a look at community in a fictional town in central Poland over the course of 20th century while weaving retellings of biblical passages in throughout the narrative. You will not find a better book distilling the essence of Eastern Europe than this meditative novel.
TBR: Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli
Translated by Bill Johnston
A tale of a city being rebuilt after the devastation of World War II, this novel is meant to be a haunting and imaginative prose-poem about a community grappling with the past and looking forward to the future.
The Final Going of Snow by Kristiina Ehin
Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere
What you need to know about the country of blue cornflowers is that poetry is popular here and sells well in bookstores. It’s refreshing to see how writing of the younger generation moved beyond political themes and how playful it can be.
This slight volume explores womanhood, various forms of love and Estonian roots in startling imagery. Interestingly enough, Kristiina also writes surreal short stories and enjoys retelling Estonian folk tales, since this was the focus of her studies at university.
TBR: Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers
Originally performed as a play, this book sheds light on the plight of two generations of women in Estonia. This is a story about sex trafficking, resistance movement, betrayal, healing from abuse and regret.
The Country where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi
Translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck
A visceral insight into growing up as a woman in a misogynistic society where various forms of violence against women and rape culture are a part of everyday life. This collection of vignettes is set at a time when the communist regime is crumbling, yet still shapes culture and mentality of the citizens. We get a glimpse into how mythology of a nation is constructed and how it impacts the society. Think The House on Mango Street, but more brutal and less hopeful.
Ornela was named one of the best European writers by Zadie Smith and is also a photographer, which you can sense in her style of writing.
TBR: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones
Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford
A woman who took the oath to live as a man in order to avoid an arranged marriage decides to emigrate to United States in order to go back to living as a woman. The themes of transition, transformation, attachment to tradition are all pieces of this tale.
● The Door (Harvill Press) by Magda Szabó, Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix
● The Unwomanly Face of War (Random House) by Svetlana Alexievich, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Belarus)
● The Passport (Serpent's Tail) by Herta Müller, Translated by Martin Chalmers (Romania)
● Life Begins on Friday (Istros Books) by Ioana Pârvulescu, Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth (Romania)
● Seeing People Off (Two Dollar Radio) by Jana Beňová, Translated by Janet Livingstone (Slovakia)
● The Summer Book (NYRB Classics) by Tove Jansson, Translated by Thomas Teal (Finland)
● True (Other Press) by Riikka Pulkkinen, Translated by Lola Rogers (Finland)