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women in translation asia

Women in Translation Month: 15 Novels & 5 Comics from Asian Women

August is Women in Translation Month, and given how much we humans enjoy lists, especially ones containing multiples of five, we were very excited to create our ultimate list of who we believe to be some of the ultimate women of today’s Asian literary world (at least those that have so far been translated into English).

For a long time women’s voices in translation went unheard. But thanks to the amazing host of independent publishers that we’ve come to know and love, we’ve finally been able to hear these voices.

In fact, the contemporary world of literature in Korea and Japan is very much dominated by women (aside from Murakami, of course), and that is truly wonderful to see. In order to keep that trend going, we need to keep celebrating women in literature. So start with this list, read it, pick your favourites, buy their books, fall in love with them, and spread the word!

Want to keep up with women in translation month? Follow this twitter page.

This list is sorted by nation but is in no particular order. Pick your favourites and enjoy.

women in translation asia

Novels

Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto (Japanese)

“Yoshimoto’s writing is lucid, earnest and disarming, as emotionally observant as Jane Smiley’s, as fluently readable as Anne Tyler’s . . . [Kitchen] is at once familiar and bizarre . . . [Yoshimoto] has a wonderful tactile ability to convey a mood or a sensation through her descriptions of light and sound and touch, as well as an effortless ability to penetrate her characters’ hearts.” (New York Times)

Translator: Megan Backus

The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa (Japanese)

“Gorgeous, cinematic . . . The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel . . . like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. . . . This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle.” (Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times)

Translator: Stephen Snyder

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami (Japanese)

“With its flying-waitress cover and kooky title, this Japanese novel – shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize – hints at Murakami-style weirdness. … Delicate marks of the passing seasons reveal Kawakami’s frank debt to classical Japanese poetry, while the odd couple’s shared meals will tickle foodie palates. An elegiac sense of speeding time, and yawning distance, drizzles the story – sensitively translated by Allison Markin Powell – with a sweet sadness.” (Boyd Tonkin, Independent)

Translator: Allison Markin Powell

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (Japanese)

“This novel made me laugh. It was the first time for me to laugh in this way: it was absurd, comical, cute… audacious, and precise. It was overwhelming.” (Hiromi Kawakami, author of Strange Weather in Tokyo)

Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori

The Last Children of Tokyo – Yoko Tawada (Japanese)

The Last Children of Tokyo has a recessive, lunar beauty… Arresting, with a flickering brilliance.” (International New York Times)

Translator: Margaret Mitsutani

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Korean)

“An elegant tale, in three parts, of a woman whose sudden turn to veganism disrupts her family and exposes the worst human appetites and impulses… [a] stripped-down, thoughtful narrative… about human psychology and physiology.” (Huffington Post)

Translator: Deborah Smith

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (Korean)

The Impossible Fairy Tale is extraordinary. Disturbing and visceral in its depiction of the savagery of childhood, yet uplifting in its reinvention of literary form. A novel of hypnotic language, page-turning suspense and mind-bending metafictional twists, The Impossible Fairy Tale is the most eerie and fearlessly experimental work I have encountered in recent years.” (Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations)

Translator: Janet Hong

Please Look After Mother – Kyung-sook Shin (Korean)

“The most moving and accomplished, and often startling, novel in translation I’ve read in many seasons … Every sentence is saturated in detail … It tells an almost unbearably affecting story of remorse and belated wisdom that reminds us how globalism-at the human level-can tear souls apart and leave them uncertain of where to turn.” (WALL STREET JOURNAL)

Translator: Chi-Young Kim

The Hole – Hye-young Pyun (Korean)

The Hole is rooted in character but has the suspense of a thriller. . . For readers who are unafraid of knowing that our life and our loved ones are strangers to us.” (Krys Lee, World Literature Today)

Translator: Sora Kim-Russell

North Station – Bae Suah (Korean)

“Bae dissolves conventional linear narrative, as though it were impossible for cause and effect to exist concurrently with such repression.” (Joanna Walsh, The National)

Translator: Deborah Smith 

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan – Yan Ge (Chinese)

“Yan Ge’s writing is outstandingly imaginative… The Chilli Bean Paste Clan delves deep into the pettiness and shortcomings of family relationships, dissecting them with remarkable insight and humour…. Yan Ge is not just a talented story-teller, she is also a versatile stylist, able to put her mastery of the local dialect to excellent use.” (China Literature Media Award judging panel, 2013)

Translator: Nicky Harman

Apple and Knife – Intan Paramaditha (Indonesian)

“Intan Paramaditha, who mixes fairy tales and gothic ghost stories with feminist and political issues, shakes up her readers, showing that her fiction is not beholden to a single interpretation. Her short stories reveal that the most terrifying thing in life is not one of the supernatural ghosts that populate her work, but human prejudice. As far as I’m concerned, only writers of genius are able to convey a layered and nuanced world, and Intan is one of them.”
(Eka Kurniawan, internationally acclaimed author of Beauty is a Wound)

Translator: Stephen Epstein

Indigenous Species – Khairani Barokka (Indonesian)

“A ballad about wounded islands and their people, Indigenous Species reminds me of an old song, the kind our village storytellers used to sing. It has a fairytale quality, setting a dreamlike world alongside the horror of real lives; in other words, it s like a lullaby, but one that will make you stay awake.” (Eka Kurniawan, author of Beauty is a Wound) 

(we were told that this novel doesn’t fall under the translated fiction bracket. It’s still wonderful and we’d love to recommend it but would like to let you know!)

Paradise of the Blind – Duong Thu Huong (Vietnamese)

“Huong’s focus is on the shifting, uneasy relationships between modernized Hang and her traditionalist mother, a merchant who peddles food; Hang’s selfish, hypocritical uncle, a communist peasant; and Hang’s comparatively wealthy, unconditionally loving aunt. Contrasts between young, old, urban and rural, help to convey the full variety of Vietnamese lifestyles.” (Publishers Weekly)

Translator: Nina McPherson

Manga/Comics

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi (Iranian)

“As Iran enters another important period of change…I think this is particularly good time to pick up Persepolis. Satrapi’s deceptively simple, almost whimsical drawings belie the seriousness and rich complexity of her story – but its also very funny too” (Emma Watson, Our Shared Shelf)

Translator: Mattias Ripa

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness – Kabi Nagata (Japanese)

“It’s impossible not to shed tears while reading this work; Nagata’s unflinching honesty is courageous, but the reason it resonates is because it parses experiences many of her readers have, but have never been able to give voice to. Nagata gave voice to her experience and that has allowed her readers to realize they are not alone.” (Hans Rollman, Pop Matters)

Translator: Jocelyne Allen

Uncomfortably Happy – Yeon-sik Hong (Korean)

“It’s a gripping graphic novel, whose subject matter is much vaster than might be suggested… We learn a lot about South Korea… and a way of life that is both more technologically driven and more traditional [than our own]. A beautiful discovery.” (Le Nouvel Observateur)

Translator: Hellen Jo

(Bonus Manga)

Fullmetal Alchemist – Hiromu Arakawa (Japanese)

I chose to add this to the list for the simple reason that ‘shounen manga’ and ‘translated women’ are usually read by disparate camps of readers, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Here is one of the most popular manga in recent years, with a target audience of young men, but (and many often forget this written by a woman). I thought it worth inviting lovers of translated literary fiction to give this a go, and for manga-readers to remember that great action can be written by great women.

Translator: Chuang Yi

Fruits Basket – Natsuki Takaya (Japanese)

This is in here for the simple fact that it’s a favourite manga amongst so many young women, and has been for so many years. Many of the books on this list are intense, powerful, often painful stories. This, on the other hand, is a light, funny, heart-warming tale, and a fitting close to a list celebrating the power of female Asian writers.

Translator: Ritsuko Okazaki

One of our older articles: Five Female Asian Writers to Move your Heart and Mind

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Will Harris
Will Harris

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