I was trying to come up with the premises of the next Out Of My Comfort Zone posts, then I had an idea, and that idea got a little out of hand, and… well, this is the result! I hope you like it, it’s basically the ultimate Out of My Comfort Zone post.
What I’m Doing, and Mostly, Why
Being an Italian person who loves YA books and adult SFF is, more often than not, frustrating. Not only because being international and bilingual in the book community comes with its own challenges – it’s also that in the genres I reach for, English media dominates everything. The SFF and YA sections of Italian bookstores are mostly books translated from English, usually American, while I barely ever see Americans talk about translated books (at least, not in these genres).
And if I am annoyed by all of this, what about trying books that are not translated from English instead of complaining or doing nothing? The thing is, not only trying to find non-English books that might interest me (read: diverse books) is difficult because there aren’t that many in the genres I know, so I might have to reach outside of them; I also don’t know people who talk about them, so I’d have to go into the books without knowing anything.
And then I thought: was that not what I did before blogging? And I’m much better at finding red flags in the synopses than I once was. I could try trusting myself for once.
The Book Haul
As you can see, the last four are books translated from English I have read or want to read; the first four are graphic novels I know nothing about, and that I’ll read for this post. Surprisingly, it looks like the graphic novel section in my bookstore is the only one that cares about diversity outside the occasional translated English books.
More in detail:
- Sol by Loputyn (aka Jessica Cioffi, an Italian artist) is a collection of illustrations that don’t form a story, as far as I understand, but there’s a thread running through them. It’s a journey in the fantastic, tied to music, to read “in chiave di sol” (in g-clef). I looked inside before picking it up and the art is gothic and gorgeous. I don’t know if it’s available to non-Italian readers, but if it is and it sounds like something that could appeal to you, there’s basically no text in it, so you wouldn’t lose anything from the experience. And oh, does it look like it will be an experience. Also, of course, some of the drawings are sapphic and I’m so here for that.
- La ragazza nello schermo by Manon Desveaux & Lou Lubie, translated by Sarah di Nella from French, was mostly a cover buy. It’s just… look, if this is a queerbait I’m going to be so disappointed, because this is probably the most explicitly f/f cover I’ve ever seen in my country ever? Just to give you an idea, the height of f/f rep here is Leah on the Offbeat. I don’t hate that book, but it has issues, and even with that it’s a miracle that we got something. Anyway, I think this is about a relationship that starts out on the internet. [The title means “the girl in the screen”]
- Non sono questi i problemi by Rén is a graphic memoir (this sounds bad. how do you call something that is both a graphic novel and a memoir) from – if I understood the synopsis – an Italian lesbian, and it should talk about love and LGBT rights and coming out. I picked this one up because the rainbow cover stood out to me immediately, and because hey, I am an Italian lesbian and this is the only time I’ve seen one in a book? I don’t usually gravitate towards nonfiction, and depending on how heavy on the politics angle this is it might be too painful for me, but I’m hopeful? [If you’re curious, the title means “the problems are not these”. I want to know what that means exactly.]
- La mia ciclotimia ha la coda rossa by Lou Lubie, also translated from French, is another graphic memoir about living with cyclothymia. Another thing that is severely lacking here is mental illness representation that isn’t tortured boys in an All the Bright Places style (…and mental illness awareness in general, do I know that), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this illness mentioned in any book, translated or not. Also, it looks like it’s not going a terribly sad book? Again, I hope the cover isn’t misleading. (As you can imagine, most rep we get is seriously depressing.) [The title means “my cyclothymia has a red tail”]
The books I won’t be reading for this post are:
- Trilogia Imperial Radch: Ancillary Justice, Sword, Mercy by Ann Leckie, translated by Francesca Mastruzzo. I already own these, but I want my family to read them – and then I discovered we finally translated it! I loved the translator’s note at the beginning of the book, so I’m hopeful about the translation being good. If you don’t know, the Imperial Radch trilogy handles gender in a very unusual way even for SFF, and since the English language is gendered in a completely different way from Italian (in English, gender is in pronouns; in Italian, the end of certain nouns and adjectives is also gendered) this must have been difficult. Anyway, I’m so glad to see it here as well, it was high time we translated the most acclaimed English-language sci-fi trilogy of the last ten years.
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Benedetta Tavani. This is the complete trilogy + a short story. I wasn’t the biggest fan when I read the first two novellas, but it’s been years, and I might give it another try. In any case, I want to support diverse SFF when it gets translated, as it’s not a common occurrence.
- Il suo corpo ed altre feste, aka Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, translated by Gioia Guerzoni. I’m trying to branch out from my usual genres more, and the hype for her work intrigues me. (I so hope they translate In the Dream House.)
- Il priorato dell’albero delle arance, aka The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, translated by Benedetta Gallo. This just got translated!! I was already planning to read this, and now I have no excuse to avoid this giant F/F fantasy tome. I’m so glad it got here, we usually don’t translate adult SFF by women at all, but the situation seems to be slowly changing! After seeing The Stars Are Legion get translated this year, I’m a little more hopeful.
The Actual Post, Finally
I started with La mia ciclotimia ha una coda rossa, and the first thing that stood out to me is how much this, the only nonfiction book about mental illness I’ve ever read, came close to my experience with dealing with psychiatrists specifically, in a way no fiction book ever has.
American YA books come in extremes: psychiatrists are either the main character’s salvation or downright evil. And the truth is in-between; they’re not evil but some of them completely lack tact in a profession in which it’s vital, and some jump at things being sociopathy/antisocial disorder/conduct disorder faaar too easily than they should. (When I got to that scene, I had to put down the book for a moment, because that was too close.)
I don’t have cyclothymia or any kind of bipolar disorder as far as I know, but I could relate to a lot of things in here, since what I have can also bring drastic mood swings over nothing (not in the same way, and not as intensely, but that scene in which she stars crying because of yoghurt of all things: relatable. Ah, the mentally ill life).
Apart from this, it’s an easy, informative read about a difficult topic; I loved the metaphor of the unpredictable-fox-as-cyclothimia, and that it also talked about a few other mental illnesses a little. The black-orange-white color scheme works wonderfully here, and this book has a lovely sense of humor as well, which made it not heavy at all. Definitely one of my favorite graphic novels of the year; it convinced me I need to read more nonfiction in this format.
(I also ended up gifting my copy to my parents and they really liked it too! They don’t read a lot of novels because not much time for that, but graphic novels are quick to read and mental illness is a topic that affects all of us, due to my existence, but isn’t much talked about in Italy.)
So, I chose one that worked for me despite the fact that I had never heard of it and I’m so proud of myself. Let’s see about the rest.
Then I tried Non sono questi i problemi by Rén. The vague-grayscale art style was not my thing, but I did like the points it was trying to make – sometimes the problem isn’t open homophobia, sometimes it’s what in English are called microaggressions (but I’m not sure if this is even a word that exists in my language) and people who have very ambiguous responses, the kind of people who make you walk back into the closet by yourself by making you feel as if you’ve just made things awkward. It might not be outright dangerous, but it’s also difficult to fight back, and this is also about finding ways to cope with that.
Also, how difficult it is to use our word for “lesbian”. I can’t believe how much discourse there is around English labels, which I usually see in a positive context because internet spaces, while I’ve almost only heard the Italian ones as insults, all of them? (no wonder many just use gay. this book gets it.)
Several choices in here made me think it was mostly aimed at straight people, so I can’t say I got that much out of this, if not for the experience of not seeing a layer of translation between me and queerness, for once, and that’s something I value a lot.
Sol was, as I predicted, an experience, the kind of experience that makes you feel as if, by not listening to the right music for the book, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It’s magical and ethereal and horrible; I think the cover explains perfectly what kind of tone this collection strikes – it’s pretty and delicate if a little sad, and the pavement is crawling with bugs.
Sol dances on the line between the beautiful and the disturbing, going in a few notes from soft to eldritch, while the witchy, vaguely melancholic atmosphere never leaves. There’s a running thread of decay in this collection, of the wild taking over the human, and I really liked the metaphors for that – from snakes to fungi to wolf masks.
I’m going to post two of my favorite illustrations in here, to give you an idea of what kind of thing it is:
In its own way, it’s a lot like a poetry collection; there are themes, and sections about certain themes, but the illustrations aren’t tied to each other, and some of them will speak to a person and others won’t. I found that most sections did, with the exception of “Lamento” – the themes were too… heterosexual, but the art was still pretty (someone who likes black-and-white ink and/or artistic NSFW hetero stuff might like it more than me).
This is not to say that the collection as a whole is too heterosexual, as there is lovely sapphic content, and certain things are universal anyway – it’s an exploration of toxic attraction and inner demons, it’s about facing your own monstrosity, and in it music is as much of a call as it is a way to keep the monsters at bay.
La ragazza nello schermo follows an online romance between a 20-year-old illustrator from France (Coline) and a 27-year-old Canadian barista from Montréal who wants to be a photographer (Marley). It’s really sweet and lovely and I’m so glad it exists, as I can count on one hand the f/f books one can currently find in an Italian bookstore.
My favorite thing about this was the portrayal of Coline’s social anxiety. This is probably the closest a book has ever come to my own experience with it? (Wow, am I finding a lot of relatable things today.) Coline had to leave university because she had panic attacks so strong she couldn’t stay in class, and… that was basically me for my first two months of last year? And like Coline, I will take off and literally run away at the slightest provocation! I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of these things in a contemporary from the US.
Another thing I really loved was the art – each artist only draws one PoV, one of the two in all grays, the other in color, and the result was both really interesting and pretty.
There are a few things about this that gave me pause and could bother someone else, however: the age gap (not really a problem for me but it is significant), the fact that Marley was already in a relationship, albeit a toxic one (her boyfriend belittles her and pressures her into sex multiple times through the story, and while it’s not explicit, it’s upsetting) when she starts falling for Coline, and a plot point involving Marley doing something big that affects Celine without her consent.
About this last thing, I have been in a similar situation as someone who also gets stuck because anxiety. People helping me without asking (because I wouldn’t have let them) did make my life better in the end, but at the same time, it had felt like a betrayal back then, and I wish this graphic novel had tried to address that a little? I get it, and I don’t think it was wrong necessarily, but seeing them talk about it would have been great; it would have made me believe in this relationship more, also because the ending is kind of abrupt.
Apart from these things, I really loved this. It’s a story about two young women who are stuck for different reasons, who help each other get free, and it’s beautiful. I hope that if these authors put out new content, it will keep arriving here.
What I Got From This
That, especially about graphic novels, English publishing isn’t and shouldn’t be the whole world; that I do like nonfiction if it’s about topics that interest me and I should definitely seek out more of it; that I am in fact good at picking up things I’m going to like.
Also, English publishing’s way to do things puts up so many limits. Traditional publishing hates the label “new adult” for marketing reasons, so it often pushes stories like La ragazza nello schermo to be YA when they aren’t, and I’m glad that’s not really a thing in other countries. (Did you know Italy doesn’t have the thing were every novel written by a woman is assumed to be YA? It’s great, and for the one time I use this word for my country, this isn’t sarcasm.)
I’m definitely going to be reading Loputyn’s backlist in the future months – I’ve already bought her artbook named Loputyn – as I’m going to be exploring my bookstore’s graphic novel shelf.
Do you often pick up books you have never heard of? And translated novels/non-English books?