Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Men. (A rant.)


The journalist’s driver who coveted my bilingual French/English dictionary. No, but really, I have never seen such a blatant example of coveting in my life. At first it was just “oh, this is nice” while leafing through it, but then the repetition, the insistence, the claiming, pulling it to his side of the table, putting his phone on it, no matter how many times I said “This is actually going to the Mobile Library when I’m done with it, and I need it for work until then,” or “I’m sure one of the bookstores in Tana has one, there’s a couple with growing English sections.” I was told later that he was talking to my host in Malagasy (in front of me), trying to get her to make me part with it. That when a Malagasy dictionary came up in conversation (the best one there is), he said “nah, don’t care, I want this one.” That when he was given a book from the house’s library (she’s trying to purge), he spurned it and said “no, I want that dictionary.” Hands off. It’s mine.

The artist who ignored my companion at the painting exhibition. We walked in together, he came to greet us, but literally turned his back on her to talk to me. Whether it was ageism or racism I don’t care, it wasn’t right. And then to say to me that I was the second person to come through that day? At the very end of the day? When four other groups of Malagasies walked in over the next five minutes? It’s not only the white people who count, Mr. Arab Malagasy. Don’t you dare express interest in my literary work when one of your country’s literary giants is invisible to you on the other side of the room.

The candidate for president who asked a well-known writer to translate his manifesto into French, but then railed that they didn’t have it done immediately -- “Who the f*** cares if it’s proper French?” And then to not pay them? Or even credit them for their work? You’d think that as a presidential candidate, you’d been concerned about your image, at least enough to appreciate that they were willing to take the time to make your prose sound beautiful in another language -- the language that, most likely, most of your donors will read. And as we creative types like to say: Eff you. Pay me.

There is truth to the generalization in Madagascar that women run everything and get none of the credit.

Oh sure, maybe I’m just sore because I couldn’t abide the sharp increase in catcalling on my trip to Fianarantsoa. It wasn’t a difference in location, it was a difference in companion -- it was the first time I’d been walking around a city with another young woman, instead of a guy or an older woman or a group. It’s enough to make me turn to vigilante justice.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people and decent human beings here. I feel loved and welcomed. But the society (not just here, but everywhere) that makes men feel entitled to power, or women, or labor, or even dictionaries, is abhorrent. A society where women barely exist in government, where there are zero women drivers or bus conductors, where women are ignored, or vilified, or raped, is untenable. 

Fuck the patriarchy.

Week 6: Through Feminism-Colored Glasses

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Collins, 2000

This book made me mad by page 6.

It's a bad one to read directly after feminism is for everybody. The whole meeting in the forest, it's supposed to be mysterious and sexy and yes, a little intrustive, I'm sure. But now I read it differently. Trespasser? Predator? A female would never be called those things. Or maybe it's because the main character in that cycle (there are three separate but interwoven stories) is a cis-hetero female. Who is alone. Attractive to a man. Attracted to a man, without wanting to be. Fine. Whatever.

Except it's not fine.

[Major spoilers coming]

Deanna's entire storyline is how her life has been driven/directed/led/affected forever by men. Her divorce is what pushed her into the Forest Service job on the mountain, alone, content, part of something bigger. That was her choice, but she was forced into a position where she had to make a choice because of her ex-husband. And then she spends the entire summer with a fierce battle raging in her mind because Eddie Bondo (clearly a whole person, because he always gets a last name) doesn't listen to her when she REPEATEDLY tells him to clear off. I mean, the whole idea of "oh come on, you know you want it"? That's disrespectful at best. Perpetuates rape culture at worst. (Seriously. In the workplace, that's considered sexual harassment.)

And then, in the end, she chooses to come down off the mountain, BECAUSE HE KNOCKED HER UP. In her late 40s. She goes back to the world, back to family connections, she's terrified of the dark: "What had changed, when she used to be so fearless? But she knew what had changed. This was what it cost to commit oneself to the living. There was so much to lose." Ugh. She's making her own choice, sure. She chooses to move in with her step-mom who she adores, she chooses to keep the baby, she chooses not to tell Eddie Bondo. But again, she's forced into a position where she has to make these choices because of him.

I enjoyed reading this book. It's gorgeous. Lyrical. I feel like I understand so much more about nature and its cycles now (having never lived off of the land myself). Birds crying for a mate, the beauty of coyotes and other predators in the balance of the ecosystem, chestnut trees fighting to survive. But then there's the idea of sex and reproduction as a search for eternal life among the birds and the bees (and other animals), and . . . something just catches in my stomach.

Well. I can enjoy a book while hating its characters. That's one of the marks of a well-written book. I enjoyed being frustrated to no end by Garnett S. Walker the Third's sanctimonious letters, his equating Unitarians with witches, his cognitive dissonance over pesticides and organic certification. I enjoyed learning with Lusa how to navigate a big family that seemed so inhospitable but was really just trying to hold itself together. I fell in love with coyotes. But the more you learn, the more complications and complexities you discover. In anything.

Next up: Muddling Through in Madagascar, by Dervla Murphy

Week 5: All That Is Known and Unknown

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

feminism is for everybody, by bell hooks
South End Press, 2000

Whoa. I needed this book.

I need this book.

Everyone needs this book.

Like. If you'd asked me if I'm a feminist before, I'd always say "sure", but apparently that was never part of my identity. It should be an integral part. I need to be an active feminist.

Yeah, I'm young, fine, I was born in the late 80s, but I thought I pretty much understood that, "way back when", women started wearing pants and eschewing bras if they wanted to, but I never understood just how much work other women had done on my behalf. How hard they fought. How easily all of this could be taken away. Reproductive rights -- we're still fighting for that. Equal pay -- we're still fighting for that. So how much of what women today enjoy as givens, what we take for granted, might vanish in a poof of conservative patriarchal whimsy?

But at the same time, here's something else I never understood: White Feminism. (Yes, capital W, capital F.) Everything that I've been conditioned to see as the goals of feminism, what we've already accomplished . . . most of that has been for the benefit of white upper-middle class women. Getting into the workforce? Most women in poverty, most women of color, they'd already been in the workforce in the 30s/40s/50s/60s. They'd love to have the freedom and financial flexibility to stay home with their kids. Why did I never consider this before.

And how there's a huge difference in being able to exist and succeed within the current white patriarchal society as a white woman -- being able to succeed in the way that white men have defined -- and completely redefining and restructuring society to be feminist. Friendly to everyone, conducive to everyone's success, whether male or female or both or neither or otherwise.

OK. There's a lot more for me to learn, and a lot more I've already absorbed in the last few years. Here are some other interesting links to consider (which have been helping me a little, so maybe other people will find them helpful, too):

And finally, if I haven't made this clear enough: for anyone who's never read this book before, GO READ THIS BOOK. Go find out who bell hooks is. Go understand why there's so much more to learn.

Next up: Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver