For Pride Month 2021, we asked eight writers and translators to recommend their favorite queer titles in translation. The books they shared with us—from Chile, China, Equatorial Guinea, France, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—explore a broad range of genres and themes, reflecting the richness and variety of contemporary international queer literature. Read on for speculative fiction, manga, a short story anthology, and more!
The English translation of the author’s early novel Qier (literally translated as “Outcast”), In the Face of Death We Are Equal showcases the talent, ambition, and audacity of Mu Cao, a queer Chinese writer from a working-class background who taught himself creative writing and eventually established himself as one of the most original queer poets and novelists from China. A story about rural and working-class gay men’s lives at the margins of Chinese society, Mu Cao’s novel reveals a hidden corner of Chinese society and Chinese gay life. Constantly shifting narrative perspectives and intertwining elements of magical realism and the grotesque, the novel does not make for an easy read. It refuses narrative closure and challenges liberal, middle-class gay sentimentality. It can only be fully appreciated when readers are willing to break the China/West dichotomy and step out of the comfort zone of gay liberalism.
Mu Cao’s novel reveals the bare lives of human beings in a developing country where neoliberal capitalism ruthlessly exploits human labor and demarcates proper middle-class consumers from working-class outcasts. Materially impoverished and struggling to survive, human bodies become cogs in the capitalist machinery of primitive accumulation. Here, queer desire manifests itself as death drive, testifying to the existence and dignity of human lives in this world. Mu Cao’s novel offers a keen insight into poor people’s lives under global neoliberalism; it provides spiritual sanctuary for the poor and the dispossessed and articulates a j’accuse to our society and our times.
In the Face of Death We Are Equal has multiple genealogies in Western and Chinese literature: Balzac’s The Human Comedy, the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber, and migrant workers’ literature in contemporary China. It can be read in conjunction with Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal and Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys.
Hongwei Bao is the author of Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism.
Gengoroh Tagame’s two-volume manga about a Japanese man who meets his departed twin brother’s Canadian husband is a twofold feat of fictive empathy. My Brother’s Husband is clearly trying to educate straight readers with these emotionally fine-tuned characters, and we get to see Tagame assemble the conscience of a straight man who painstakingly reexamines his own intolerance. The typically stoic and prejudiced Yaichi Origuchi undergoes a change of heart as his brother-in-law Mike Falangan charms his daughter Kana, his ex-wife Natsuki, and, eventually, Yaichi himself.
Known for his sexually frank, homoerotic works, Tagame tempers his distinct style in these two volumes. In one panel, the strapping Yaichi himself is naked in a steaming bathtub. In another, he examines his partially naked body in front of a mirror, and then decides that his gay visitor can never see him in this way. This voluptuousness is balanced out with a child’s sense of awe, as embodied in Kana, who asks innocent—but the right!—questions, unwittingly nudging Yaichi to unpack his beliefs about parenthood, relationships, and sexual orientation. As usual with Tagame, the art is exquisite. His meticulous rendering is such that certain smells come to mind upon seeing the patterns on the bedsheets in a spa resort that Yaichi, Natsuki, Kana, and Mike visit. Anne Ishii’s nifty translation is attuned to subtle shifts in register. Before leaving for Canada, Mike teaches Kana how to say “sayonara” in English (“See you later!”) to stress the possibility of meeting again. In the end, Tagame doesn’t lose track of what draws the host and his guest closer to each other: the loss of Ryoji, whom they both loved, Mike as a husband and Yaichi as a brother. A loss that is echoed when Kana faces the departure of her beloved new uncle. The wonder is not so much that straight men like Yaichi exist, but that we witness how Tagame imagines him into being.
John Bengan is a fiction writer and translator from the Philippines.
To the Warm Horizon presents the world in an unsettlingly familiar state of emergency, a mysterious global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and shattered any semblance of normalcy. Yet amid the chaos and violence, new connections are formed, and the uncertainty of the future becomes the possibility of a far greater and more meaningful existence than suffocating under the pressures of debt and exhaustion in pre-pandemic South Korea. When Jina, traveling with what remains of her extended family, encounters Dori, traveling with her young, deaf sister Joy, a bond of kinship forms and grows into a tender romance, an oasis from the ravages of the outside world. In a society in the midst of remaking itself anew, Jina, Dori, and those closest to them reflect on who they thought they were and who they can become. Soje’s translation captures the complexity and layered-ness of the characters’ emotions as the novel switches between different first-person perspectives, and took hold of this reader’s heart.
The publication of Soje’s translation of Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon and the upcoming publication of Anton Hur’s translation of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City mark the first novel-length works of Korean fiction centered on lesbian and gay relationships to come out in English. Alongside the deliciously queer poetry of Lee Hyemi (tr. Soje), these two novels are broadening the horizons of what readers may have previously believed constituted “Korean literature.”
Victoria Caudle is a translator from Korean and a PhD student at UCLA.
Edited by Howard Chiang
Recommended by Chi Ta-wei
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous begins with an epigraph from Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre. Carolina De Robertis’s Cantoras, a saga of Uruguayan lesbians, starts with an epigraph from Qiu’s Notes of a Crocodile. The reader of these works may ponder the following questions: Where is Qiu from? From what social context did Qiu’s transculturally compelling works emerge?
It is useful for the reader to historicize and contextualize Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995) in Taiwan, which was repressive to queer lives before the 1990s but has dramatically become one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in Asia in the new millennium. To that end, Queer Taiwanese Literature: A Reader is a timely collection of stories from Qiu’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.
Edited by Howard Chiang, a historian of transgender lives in Taiwan and China, Queer Taiwanese Literature presents seven stories. “Late Spring” and “On Her Gray Hair” are from writers who are senior to Qiu. “Late Spring,” written in 1975, portrays an adventurous bisexual woman’s sexual frustrations with a woman, a straight man, and a gay man. “On Her Gray Hair” depicts an aging butch lesbian who struggles to come to terms with her alienated body.
“Howl,” “Muakai,” and “A Nonexistent Thing” are from writers of Qiu’s generation. In “Howl,” a gay man with AIDS who is a fan of the iconoclast Allen Ginsberg, refuses to let go of his anger against 1990s society. Since indigenous peoples make up a minority of Taiwan’s population, “Muakai,” by an indigenous writer, is a rare gem. The story presents indigenous women who oscillate between their culture's homoerotic tradition and the heteronormativity demanded by the men around them. “A Nonexistent Thing” showcases the trend among lesbian couples to seek pregnancy using pricey in vitro fertilization technology.
“Violet” and “A Daughter” are by writers who have emerged in the new millennium. “Violet” testifies to the vertiginous popularity of recreational drugs among local gay men. “A Daughter” discloses the desire to cross-dress shared by a trans woman and her father.
Ta-wei Chi is an associate professor of Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University. He is the author of a monograph on queer literature in Taiwan and the science fiction novel The Membranes, of which you can read an excerpt on WWB.
Notes of a Crocodile is a wonderful book for a variety of reasons. Telling of a young queer woman's coming of age while at university, it captures the innocence, confusion, and emotion—as well as the violence, self-hate, and despair—that can happen at that tender point in life. It also mixes literary forms to create a delightfully complex text, Qiu's idiosyncratic, strident voice finding ways to talk about issues of sex and identity that we're still learning from nearly thirty years later. The title refers to the narrator's tendency to think of herself as a crocodile, littering the story with fables of sad crocodiles striving to look human—it's a touching, achingly true way of discussing what it feels like to walk around a straight world with a queer body. Beautifully translated by Bonnie Huie, it's a great book, as is Qiu's later Last Words from Montmartre.
Veronica Esposito is a writer and transgender advocate. She has worked with literary translation as a writer, editor, and publicist for well over a decade, and she is now earning a Master's degree in counseling while serving the transgender community through counseling and peer support. The author of four books, her publication credits include NPR, The Guardian, The New York Times, and many others.
By Marguerite Yourcenar, tr. from French by Dori Katz
Recommended by Spencer Lee-Lenfield
The mid-twentieth-century French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, herself queer, had a knowledge of the minutiae of Greek and Roman antiquity matched by almost no other modern writer. Her most popular work remains her historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, which places at its center the relationship between the Roman emperor and his lover Antinous—available in a beautiful English translation by Grace Frick. But Yourcenar's earlier work Fires deserves as much, if not even more, praise, especially as translated by Dori Katz, whose English traces different roads to the same aesthetic vantages as Yourcenar's precise and wistful French, like alternate routes to a summit. Fires consists of nine lyrical prose meditations on characters from ancient myth and history: these texts move freely across re-creation, modern update, and channeling, without worrying too much about the particulars. Yourcenar, writing in the 1930s, quietly finds some of the queerest elements in many a character: Achilles disguising himself as a woman to evade conscription by the Greek army; Phaedo's recollections of Socrates; the story of Sappho's suicide over her lover Phaon (which likely began as a heterosexualizing joke in antiquity) restyled as the dive of a modern acrobat in a trenchant meditation on bisexuality. Yourcenar spent her rich talents on the world of precious antique pleasures, uncovering there, in some of the most poetic prose written in a modern European language, the dwelling place of possibility. As Yourcenar and Katz together write: “I do not fear ghosts. The living are terrifying only because they have bodies.”
Spencer Lee-Lenfield is a PhD candidate in the department of comparative literature at Yale at work on a dissertation about translation and retelling between Korean literature and Korean emigrant literature in English. Twitter: @sleelenfield
In La Bastarda, Trifonia Melibea Obono takes an intimate look at gender roles and lesbian invisibility in the Fang community in her home country, Equatorial Guinea, the former Spanish colony in northern Africa. Known for sharp, bold writing, Obono offers the story of Okomo, whose cursed mother dies as she is born, and thus places a burden on her complicated polygamous maternal family. Okomo wants to know more about her father and his story but he’s known as a scoundrel and her mother’s family wants nothing to do with him. In Fang tradition, her mother’s brother, her Uncle Marcelo, should step into the paternal role, but Marcelo is as openly homosexual as the Fang community can bear and the target of much homophobia. Still, Okomo and Marcelo bond, and they do so as much around their rejection of traditional gender roles as they do their rebel sexualities. When Okomo gets her first period, she should become an adult and pair up with a man to make babies but instead, her explorations lead her to a fascinating relationship with three wild girls out in the forest who break all the rules and teach her to make her own way. There may not be a Fang word for lesbian, but Okomo embodies her queerness with courage and pride and asserts her right to existence.
Lawrence Schimel’s translation doesn’t just contend with the regionalisms of Equatorial Guinean Spanish but also with scattered Fang words, sometimes for food, for “man-woman,” for dress, for moods. Because the story is not just about Okomo but also about the lasting effects of Spanish colonization and the ongoing project of de-colonization, the balance of the three languages is nuanced but vividly symbolic.
Achy Obejas is a novelist, poet, and translator whose bilingual poetry collection Boomerang/Bumerán is forthcoming from Beacon Press in September. A recipient of a USA Artists fellowship, an NEA grant, and a Cintas fellowship, among other awards, she is currently a writer and editor for Netflix and lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
By Pedro Lemebel, tr. from Spanish by Katherine Silver
Recommended by Iván Monalisa Ojeda
A novel set in Santiago, Chile, amid the attempted assassination of Augusto Pinochet in 1986, Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador examines the conditions of queer and working-class life in big cities while also providing some of the broader cultural and sociopolitical background of my own life story as an immigrant from Chile. My Tender Matador is a daring love story about a poor, lonely, middle-aged trans character called the Queen of the Corner who works for the wealthy residents of the city, and Carlos, a handsome young college student and guerrilla with the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization. When Carlos convinces the Queen of the Corner to use the place she’s renting for the revolutionary group’s ends, she chalks it up to nothing more than a lively study group. But, of course, it is much more than just that, and complications arise. The novel made quite a stir when it was first published in Chile in 2001, as it depicted Pinochet as egotistical and homophobic—not exactly controversial today, but Pinochet was still alive then. Lemebel, a nominee for Chile's National Literature Prize in 2014, just a year before he passed away, was known for his fierce political advocacy, his sharp wit, and his focus on queer lives, and the book has now been adapted to film.
Iván Monalisa Ojeda is a performer and the author of, most recently, Las Biuty Queens (Astra House, 2021), and an essay collection, La Misma Nota, Forever (Sangria Publishers, 2014). Iván Monalisa’s pronouns are he/she, his/hers, and him/her because he/she considers him/herself to be both genders.
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