At a time when LGBTQ rights are being rolled back in many U.S. states and record numbers of queer books are being suppressed in classrooms and libraries, the need for a robust and diverse canon of queer literature is especially acute. International perspectives can offer fresh ideas and potential road maps in the fight for equality.

“Just as literature is necessarily and inevitably global, so the LGBTQ+ and other movements must be,” says Kit Maude, who has translated works by dozens of Latin American writers, including trans Argentine author Camila Sosa Villada. “The wider their appreciation of different experiences and histories, the stronger these movements will be.”

PW spoke with Maude and other translators about bringing international queer perspectives to U.S. readers.

Identity papers

Sosa Villada made her English-language debut in 2022 with Maude’s translation of Bad Girls, a fantastical novel about trans sex workers in Córdoba, Argentina. The nine stories in her forthcoming collection, I’m a Fool to Want You (Other Press, May), span multiple genres, from gritty realism and social satire to fantasy and science fiction, and, like Bad Girls, focus on “the travesti experience,” Maude says. The title story, for instance, is “about a pair of travestis befriending Billie Holiday during some of the most difficult times in her life.”

In Argentina and the rest of Latin America, Sosa Villada is known for her outspokenness on transgender issues and frankness about her experience as a sex worker, which Maude says can distract critics from her mastery of craft. “Commentators have quite rightly focused on the social and political issues raised by her writing, but as her translator—and translation is essentially the closest reading you can imagine—I’d like to emphasize her skill at storytelling.” Still, he recognizes the importance of Sosa Villada’s subject matter. “The power of Camila’s work lies in reminding people of the sacrifices and tragedy that the LBGTQ+ community had to endure to get to where we are today, how fragile the progress made is, and how far there still is to go.”

Spanish playwright and activist Alana S. Portero’s debut novel, Bad Habit (HarperVia, Apr.), likewise contends with the injustices of the past, via the coming-of-age story of a working-class trans woman in Madrid in the 1980s and ’90s. Translator Mara Faye Lethem notes that the unnamed narrator “learns a lot from her elders who suffered under the 1970 Law of Social Danger”—legislation passed by the Francoist dictatorship that criminalized homosexuality.

The queer Madrileño director Pedro Almodóvar, a major figure in the countercultural movement that serves as the backdrop for Bad Habit, has championed the book for its depiction of the experience of growing up trans. Lethem says the novel “will shift how you think about both femininity and masculinity” and hopes it will move readers to think deeply about their own identities. “Storytelling is how we come to understand ourselves, the world, and others, and the more angles our stories come from, the better.”

Lethem also translated another queer novel making waves in Spain: Pol Guasch’s debut, Napalm in the Heart (FSG, Aug.), which won the prestigious Anagrama Prize and garnered significant attention in Guasch’s native Catalunya. The novel, translated from the Catalan, chronicles a young man’s forbidden queer romance in a near-future apocalyptic society marred by war and natural disaster.

“Pol was born two decades after homosexuality was decriminalized in Spain,” Lethem says, “but the unnamed narrator of Napalm in the Heart is painfully aware of the ways in which his desire defies the expectations other people, particularly his parents, have for him.”

Guasch never specifies where and when the book takes place, and his translator initially found the absence of those details challenging to work with. Ultimately, the nondescriptness of the story highlights its universality, that it could be happening anywhere, at any time; Lethem describes the novel as a “dark tale from the future that is now.”

Alongside Guasch, one of the preeminent Catalan-language chroniclers of queer life working today is Eva Baltasar, whose triptych of novels explores the lives of three different women who, translator Julia Sanches says, “are in the midst of trying to find their place in a world that suits them as much as a pair of too-small shoes.” (When the second book, Boulder, was shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize, “the Catalans went gaga,” Sanches says.) The triptych’s final installment, Mammoth (And Other Stories, Aug.), follows a disenchanted young lesbian who combats her malaise by dabbling in sex work and swapping city life for the countryside in her search for sensation.

“Baltasar has always said that she writes queer women because she herself is a queer woman,” Sanches says. “I’ve taken this to mean that the queerness in her work is something of an accident of fate.” She speculates that, because post-Franco Spain has become one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBTQ rights, much of Baltasar’s creative freedom to write about queerness comes from the sense that “she writes from a place, a country, in which her rights as a queer woman are not at risk.”

Visions of Liberation

In other nations, the climate is far less hospitable. The Last Syrian (Seagull, May) by Omar Youssef Souleimane, who was born in Syria and immigrated to France in 2012 due to the civil war, tells the story of young men and women, including lovers Youssef and Mohammad, who organize protests at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. The characters stage “their own revolution against the oppressive rigidity and ossification of their family, religion, culture, and government,” says Ghada Mourad, who translated the novel from the French. (To her knowledge, it hasn’t yet been translated into Arabic, Syria’s official language.)

To Mourad, the relationship between Youssef and Mohammad speaks beyond a queer readership. “Everyone who has had to hide a secret from family and friends for fear of judgment, rejection, or persecution can relate to these characters and their plight, which in turn helps the reader understand their yearning for freedom.”

While homosexuality is criminalized in Syria, and protections for queer Syrians are practically nonexistent, Mourad notes, “there has been a continuous presence of homosexual love in Arabic poetry, dating back to early Islam and continuing into the present time.”

Indeed, queer literary traditions persist in every corner of the world. The work of Puerto Rican writer Gabriel Carle, for instance, exists within a rich lineage of queer Latin American authors, says translator Heather Houde, who cites such forebears as Reinaldo Arenas, Pedro Lemebel, Manuel Ramos Otero, and Manuel Puig. Carle’s debut story collection, Bad Seed (Feminist Press, May), explores the coming of age of queer, working-class Puerto Ricans.

“If I had to describe Gabriel’s writing in three words, I would say ‘horny,’ ‘anxious,’ and ‘existential,’ ” Houde says. “They vacillate between nihilism and relentless hope.” Of the eight stories in the collection, Houde cites “In the Bathhouse” as representative of this dichotomy. During the day, the story’s main character works at a nonprofit administering HIV tests; at night, they work at a bathhouse where they witness and participate in unprotected sex.

“While the contradiction is impossible to ignore, they are somehow not mutually exclusive,” Houde says of the story. “Hope and despair are two sides of the same coin––the openheartedness that comes with wanting a better future for yourself and for your community.”

Japanese author Akira Otani has similarly mixed emotions when it comes to how queer women are represented in Japan, according to her translator, Sam Bett, who relayed sentiments from a 2023 essay by Otani. Growing up, Otani was frustrated as she searched for other lesbians in the pages of books; her first discovery was Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli detective series. Even today, she laments the shortage of lesbian literature in Japanese, so she’s taken matters into her own hands.

Bett, who says that “reading queer narratives from outside the U.S. helps us to see the ways we’ve packaged and shaped queer literature inside the U.S.,” recalls looking for Japanese novels with queer subject matter when he discovered Otani’s The Night of Baba Yaga (Soho Crime, July). In the novel, Otani’s English-language debut, a biracial fighter develops a powerful attachment to the yakuza princess she’s been forced to protect; Bett describes it as “a queer revenge tale that turns power upside down and finds partnership and meaning at the barren limits of the maxim ‘be yourself.’ ”

The act of literary translation can be seen as a form of dialogue, says Michiel Heyns, who describes translating as a “negotiation between two cultures and two people.” Heyns translated, from the Afrikaans, Fathers and Fugitives (Europa, Sept.) by South African author S.J. Naudé. The pair met at the first Open Book Festival in Cape Town in 2011, and ever since, Heyns notes, “the friendship has flourished, and has even survived my translating of this novel.” (Previously, Naudé translated his own work.)

Fathers and Fugitives follows a lonely queer journalist living in London who returns home to South Africa to care for his dying father, only to learn of a perplexing clause in his will. Naudé’s fiction, Heyns says, is notable for “its inexhaustible otherness—queerness in its broadest sense.”

The translator, who has lived in South Africa most of his life, has seen a shift in the country’s reception of queer narratives over the past few decades. Comparing the trajectories of South Africa and the present-day U.S., he hopes, as a gay man and the author of 10 novels himself, that queer South African narratives such as Naudé’s might inspire American readers.

“America seems to be facing the kind of threat that we weathered in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “Whether our voices and narratives have the power to alleviate in any way the anxieties that must be facing the queer community in the U.S. is uncertain. But at a time when our situation seemed hopeless, we gained strength from the American example, and we can only hope that the survival, in our hardly free-wheeling country, of a culture of tolerance can help to keep alive that fragile flame.”

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