Emma Deshpande

Not Like Their Mothers

A Kitchen in the Corner of the HouseA. Ambai, Translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Archipelago, 2019, 376pp, $20.00 (paperback)

The Scent of Buenos AiresHebe Uhart, Translated from Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy, Archipelago, 2019, 483pp, $24.00 (paperback)

This autumn, Archipelago Books published two short story collections in translation: A. Ambai’s A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, translated by the late Lakshmi Holmström, and Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires, translated by Maureen Shaughnessy. Ambai’s and Uhart’s collections reveal each author’s range as a storyteller, and consist of honest depictions of the female experience in Argentinian and Indian communities, respectively.

Ambai’s stories waver between fantasy and reality, prose and poetry. The story ‘Once Again’, about a boy named Lokidas and a girl named Sabari growing up together, adopts a poetic format. Scenes from Lokidas’ and Sabari’s childhoods are framed by short, stanza-like paragraphs that outline society’s pressures upon young men and women. For Lokidas: 

Use our razor blades. She will stroke your cheek. Then..
Buy our toothpaste, her face can home near yours.

And for Sabari:

            When you have bathed with our soap, washed your hair with our shampoo, tipped our talcum powder over your shoulders, used our nail polish and our bindi, and when you open the door – there will be Cupid himself standing in front of you.
Those difficult days…

Both women and men are constricted by the pressures of consumerism and evasion of frank discussions surrounding sexuality (‘Then..’ and ‘Those difficult days…’ alluding to sex and menstruation). When Sabari and Lokidas fall in love, their embrace leads to Sabari’s pregnancy, and an excruciating abortion before medical students.

Ambai’s stories favour the female characters living in male-dominated homes and communities, and she does not punish women for being free and sexually active. The story ‘Forest’ features Chenthiru, a woman who dreams of ‘forests from the poems of Ahanaanuuru.’ She takes long walks through the forest, ignoring her husband’s disapproval, and subverting the tradition of men exploring forests in Indian folklore. In sections throughout Chenthiru’s story, Ambai rewrites the legend of Sita and her husband Ramayana, to show Sita transcribing her own narrative and preserving her voice for posterity.

Ambai has created an inspiring collection of female characters who study and have sex. Some wish to be mothers, some do not. These women do not merely long for existence beyond their husbands and brothers and fathers; they achieve that freedom. Holmström’s translation emphasizes the energy Ambai must have included in the original Tamil, and she also manages to bring the sounds of Tamil to an English-speaking reader. In the story ‘A Rat, A Sparrow’, a conversation between the unnamed female narrator and her partner, Amulyo, reveals the correct pronunciation of Tamil: ‘Well then, should any idiot who can’t even pronounce “zh” make fun of Tamil? What’s all this Tamil, anyway? It’s Tamizh, Tamizh. Say “zh”.’

Uhart’s stories in The Scent of Buenos Aires are more grounded in realism. They tend to take place in domestic settings, and are often funny. Shaughnessy’s translation preserves the humour in scenes such as a conversation in the title story between Carmencita and her father (a famous composer). Their argument is observed by the narrator, a young girl who is visiting the house because her aunt is friends with Carmencita:

          ‘You’ve been smoking, Enrique.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve been fumigating. This house needs to be fumigated, it smells too much like health.’
I was not familiar with the scent of health. In my opinion, that house had some sort of very faint perfume that came from the walls.

Uhart is skilled at contrasting both children and adult perspectives. In ‘Impressions of a School Principal’, the principal observes a teacher correcting a pupil when saying ‘earthwern’ instead of ‘earthworm’. Shaughnessy captures the emotion of these pronunciations for an English-speaking audience; ‘They say “earthworm” in a somber, sad voice. Like the children, I prefer “earthwern” to “earthworm”. It’s more humble, shadier, more intimate. Earthworm is a little dry.’

Uhart’s depth of humanity is present throughout the collection. The story ‘The Light of New Day’, dedicated to Uhart’s mother, follows the ageing Genoveva as she recovers from a hip fracture while her daughter and daughter-in-law consider placing her in a care home. The theme is in the first paragraph; ‘Young folks are good; middle-aged folks are not’.

Ambai’s stories focus on people interacting with a culture that paradoxically uplifts and oppresses people. When traditional myths ignore female autonomy they are adapted, not rejected. Uhart is concerned not with creating a mythology but with examining humanity, at all ages, in many social classes, jobs and towns. Short stories in translation offer insight into language: its meaning and pronunciation. Both of these collections explore means of communication as they amplify female voices and perspectives. 

Words by Emma Deshpande.


To buy A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by A. Ambai, visit here
To buy The Scent of Buenos Aires by Hebe Uhart, visit here

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