Reading Women in Translation for #WITmonth 2017

Supporting Women in Translation month signals that the reading public wants different voices and more choices to read.

Last year (late July 2016), I learned about Women in Translation month when the #women_writers Twitter chat featured Meytal Radzinski, founder of this movement (you can find the chat highlights here). As rave reviews and recommendations forbooks I hadn’t yet read or even heard about, I became very conscious of having a reading blind spot. I certainly read several translated works over the years, and women writers were among their numbers[*]. Some I’d read as part of my coursework (poet Anna Akhmatova among them), others (classic or more recent) because they were sufficiently famous to warrant attention (Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel Trans by Thomas Christensen, Carol Christensen).

But I hadn’t given thought much about how few books are translated into English and, of these books, how few are written by women.[†] This simple observation made me realize how much I was missing, not just in terms of good stories (many works translated are widely respected), but in the experiences reading provides. Reading from diverse sources broadens our horizons, allows us to contemplate viewpoints not our own—preventing us from living in a complacent echo chamber and helping us become more empathetic people. Insight into other lives and other cultures—or just an amazing tale, all are great reasons to read women in translation. Supporting Women in Translation month signals that the reading public wants different voices and more choices to read.

MY WITmonth Experiences Thus Far

For my part, my albeit late participation in Women in Translation month last year involved purchasing a copy of one the most highly discussed books, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). Kang’s novel was explosive in its discussion of identity,[‡] insanity, erasure, violence (including both child and domestic abuse), and family. I hadn’t read anything else like it, and the novel has stayed with me. This year, I followed it up with Kang’s novel, Human Acts (also translated by Deborah Smith). Based on the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea during the early 1980s, the government’s violence against its own citizens is both brutal and senseless. And yet, some chose to stand and protest regardless of the risks involved. Kang captured the frightening range of humanity, both noble and monstrous. Afterwards, I found myself wondering about immigrant families I’ve known (not just from South Korea), the reasons that might have motivated them to emigrate, how restrictive immigration policies might abandon families like theirs to terrible fates. The novel, too, reminded me of how some peaceful protestors in my country have been mistreated. Thought provoking, indeed.

Going  Further

While I do recommend you read more women in translation, I am not providing my own list because articles posted on several other websites and blogs already are doing an excellent job of providing these recommendations. I listed a few of these resources below. I also suggest typing #WITmonth into the WordPress reader or Twitter feed for more ideas for reading translated works by women writers.

The Women in Translation blog is obviously a fantastic resource for reading women in translation.

Reading Women in Translation #WITMonth by Claire McAlpine appears on her blog Word by Word, which regularly features translated works.

The AnzLitLovers blog by Lisa Hill has multiple reviews of books written by female authors in translation listed in this archive.

Words Without Borders (WWB) online literary magazine offers several features focusing on women writers in translation including 25 Recent Works by Women Writers to Read for #WITmonth by Jessica Chaffee and Where Are the Women in Translation? Here Are 31 to Read Now by Liz Cettina.

English PEN, an organization devoted to literature and human rights, has several articles discussing women in translation (include the PEN Translates awards and grants).  Joanna Walsh’s article, Women in Translation to Read Right Now, provides reading suggestions.

PEN America, the US-based branch of PEN, similarly features articles discussing women in translation , including Susan Bernofsky’s article Read These Women in Translation Now.

BookRiot features 7 August Releases by Women in Translation This #WITMonth by M. Lynx Qualey and 10 Books to Check Out for Women in Translation Month by Teresa Preston

Goodreads also features this fantastic list of over 600 works: Women in Translation

Feel free to share your suggested books or links to reading lists as well!

NOTES:

[*] I suspect, though, male writers would outnumber female writers in translation. So much work to do here.

[†] Meytal Radzinski estimates that only 30% of book translated into English were written by women. Specific details are available here.

[‡] I discuss The Vegetarian in a post on character here.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Amusing Missteps and Lessons Learned

Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter.

Traveling with Limited Tech

I tend to take vacations with few electronic devices, particularly when boarding an airplane restricts my carry-on space. Since sightseeing and other outings occupy most of my time,  jotting ideas into a notebook or tapping a brief note into my phone works well enough to let me leave my laptop home. That is, until I started this blog and the inevitable conflict between my posting schedule and holiday plans arose. Knowing I would be traveling for almost two weeks, I decided to write at least one post while I was away[*] and began planning what I would discuss. Even with limited Internet access while traveling in Alaska (with a few excursions into Canada), I reasoned that blogging should be manageable.

Blogging with minimalist equipment (ie, my tablet), of course, would be less comfortable than usual, but swapping hiking boots for a laptop wasn’t an option here. So I went about my normal packing routine,[†] until my spouse appeared holding what looked like a restaurant menu. It proved to be his spare wireless keyboard, which he said made typing easier for him when he used a tablet. We soon had it connected, downloaded MS Word to my tablet, and typed a test sentence or two. And just like that, I had a serviceable mobile writing set up. Before starting his own packing, he suggested that I experiment with using it, to see how everything worked together.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
It might like look the wine list, but it happens to be a wireless keyboard. (Photo by R. Gould)

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that, harried by travel prep, I didn’t get around to doing so. And thus I made the first in a series of eventually amusing missteps.

Roaming and Writing

Several days later, I sat perched at a makeshift desk in my temporary quarters and began to write in earnest. The keyboard, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm. Roughly every third keystroke didn’t register, forcing me to correct countless typos. As I forged onward at a glacial pace, my napping spouse awoke[‡] and insisted I use his wireless keyboard instead. With functional equipment, I finally made progress writing. All went well until I tried switch over to the WordPress app. The app I had on my phone, not my tablet. And on my phone, I realized, I didn’t have MS Word, meaning neither device had all the software I standardly use for blogging.

This is much funnier in retrospect.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
The speed of typing on a semi-defective keyboard seemed oddly familiar after Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by R. Gould.)

The complicating factor (because it’s not ridiculous until there’s complications) was the spotty Internet connection I mentioned earlier. While this was a minor inconvenience on occasions when I, for example, wanted to check whether sea mammals happened to be baby Orcas or dolphins (they were Dall’s porpoise), I truly missed the Internet when I realized I couldn’t use it to quickly fix my difficulties by downloading the apps I needed or by transferring the documents between devices. My choices involved making two trips to the Internet café (expensive and time consuming) or finding another solution. Feeling frazzled, I decided to forgo the fancier formatting MS Word gave me, connected the keyboard to my phone, and retyped the essay directly into the WordPress app. At least that went smoothly thanks to the new keyboard.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned Text by Rita E. Gould
I missed Google when I couldn’t use it to identify sea mammals (here, Dall’s porpoises) but not as much as when I realized I needed to download WordPress. (Photo by Jeremy Henderson. Used with permission.)

Uploading in Its Time

But my Internet woes were not done. I still needed to look up two URLs for the articles I wanted to link to my post. So, I found the Internet café, agreed to pay the pricey access charges, and waited for the slow connection to upload my files. Once that was accomplished, I added the links, waited forever for the app to update…and discovered  that some of the text I linked to an URL mysteriously disappeared. I fixed the text (itself a tedious process), updated again, and waited to see the corrected page. Satisfied that everything looked right, I logged off. I’d officially posted my first blog while traveling!

It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered that last update apparently didn’t go through, and the version with errors went live.[§] *sigh*

Blogging and Travel

Despite my dearth of preparation and sundry mishaps, I nonetheless succeeded in posting to my blog while on the road. Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter. In my case, I gained several insights into how I can improve my writing experience for my next journey, which I’ve listed here for future reference.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Check both writing devices and software before leaving, making certain that you have both the necessary apps and peripherals (including chargers) for your device. Confirm that your setup works before stowing it in your bag but consider what your options will be if something goes wrong anyway.
  2. Test uploading and editing posts[**] from your mobile devices to find issues before you travel. I’ve used the WordPress app on my phone to reply to comments and make minor edits previously, so I knew differences existed between the mobile and desktop versions. Having a more accurate estimate for how long it takes to upload and edit posts, however, would have been helpful.
  3. When possible, copy URLs and download images/videos to your device in case you need to work offline. You can embed these items in your offline draft (as I did with my post’s image) so that they upload with the text, thus streamlining the process.
  4. If free Wi-Fi and mobile reception aren’t options, plan for long load times and buy Internet access accordingly—something I did right.
  5. Choose a topic and outline/plan what you want to write in advance. Even if you intend to discover your topic as you travel, it doesn’t hurt to brainstorm beforehand.[††] Expending less effort on prewriting ultimately proved beneficial when everything else went wrong.
  6. Try to laugh at travel writing and its misadventures, because tech issues and other unplanned hassles occur even when you are prepared.

NOTES:

[*] Given a less packed summer schedule, I’d have written posts before traveling. Perhaps next time.

[†] Oscillating between the worry I forgot something and the fear I brought too much.

[‡] I cannot confirm or deny that muttered profanity played a role in ending his nap.

[§] Thanks to everyone who liked my post despite the errors. For the record, they’re gone but I won’t forget them any time soon.

[**] I recommend marking the post as private if you don’t want it to be seen.

[††] I’d had the idea to write about reading while traveling since I’d written about reading in preparation for travel, recalling (to my chagrin) dragging heavy books to exotic locations, only to neglect reading them.

Reading on the Road

Sometimes, the trips I’ve taken didn’t allow much room for rest and relaxation, let alone reading.

The Bookworm’s Dilemma

Before I pack for a trip, one of the thornier questions I ponder involves books. Long past the days when I’d lug my satchel of books to the backseat of my parents’ car and read until daylight was gone, I need to consider my reading more thoughtfully. When reading in busy settings (like the pool or at airports), I prefer works that forgive a few interruptions. I also need to think about bulk, since my travel accommodations rarely are spacious. By the time I’m ready to zip my bags, the question of what to read often slides into whether I should bring a book along at all. Will I read this book on my trip?

Travel and Reading

Sometimes, the trips I’ve taken didn’t allow much room for rest and relaxation, let alone reading. Sarah Tinsley discusses the need for respite in our daily lives, referring to an anecdote that concludes our reason for taking pricey vacations is to compensate for the stress caused by our overpacked lives. Yet, we may unintentionally bring this frenetic energy with on holidays. Itineraries, cataloguing sights to see, tend to turn into checklists to complete and leave many travelers feeling as unrested as they were when they left. Whether it’s the notion that vacation time is too precious to waste sitting or the fear of missing opportunities, there can be little time to reflect on whether we enjoyed ourselves. For those who like alone time and a good read, this vacation plan isn’t worth writing home about.

Niches of Quiet

For the avid reader who finds reading restorative, the solution isn’t forgoing a dream vacation. When we book travel, we should look for moments to build in some free time, giving ourselves time to relax, reflect and read with abandon. Driving to destinations, poring over maps, and queuing for tickets genuinely require our attention, but we can also devote a few minutes to find niches of quiet. It’s easy enough to read a few pages before bedtime or spend some time with a book while waiting for a coach tour to begin. If you’re a reader, taking the time to read the book you brought will make your getaway even better.

Happy reading, fellow travelers!

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet? Simply put, other books beckoned.

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In Text by Rita E. Gould
How do your reading resolutions stack up against your to-read list?
Following weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 80s, January’s cold seems distant as I contemplate the resolutions I made in that darker month. The resolutions in question, of course, are reading ones. With more than half the year gone, I reviewed the list of books I planned to read. Surprisingly, I discovered that I read exactly two books listed, with a third started (Beloved by Toni Morrison). A number I might find disappointing, had I not read (and wrote about) several other books since the list’s genesis.

The Power of Other Books

But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet?[*] Simply put, other books beckoned. I belong to online book groups that discuss a few novels every month. These books tend to inspire blog posts, so I place them a bit higher on my reading queue. I also visit my local library to encourage my child’s burgeoning reading habit.[†] Browsing the shelves allows me to find fascinating books I might not have otherwise encountered (The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami).[‡] There’s also my own evolving reading goals: books I want to read for an upcoming trip, books gifted to me, and other projects that pop up (the #readingwomenmonth, to name one).

Weaker Resolve

In the interest of strict honesty, there are a few books I’ve delayed reading or finishing. Whether the book’s density or subject matter required more attention than I could provide, I returned these to the “to-read” stack. For now. Some books I forgot I wanted to read because I made the list so long ago. Other books I put aside because they didn’t suit my reading environment. When I want to read in a car or at the pool,[§] I like reading something that can be interrupted and readily resumed again. And finally, there’s a few books I wanted to see as a movie first, because I suspect I won’t enjoy the movie quite as much if I read the book beforehand (Sorry, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).[**]

The Slipperiness of Resolve: the Mid-Year Reading Resolution Check-In
I’d like to read Les Misérables at the shore, but the splashing is too distracting.

Reading On

For all that I haven’t yet read, I’m so close enough to achieving the reading goal I set for myself on Goodreads that I will likely increase it. In the spirit of getting there eventually, I’m updating my list with the hope that I get to my unread books—along with several new additions to my list.[††] Included, too, are books I’ve read. Feel free to check links to books I’ve discussed in other posts. As always, happy reading!

2017 To-Read List

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (in progress)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (in progress)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (in progress)

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Human Acts by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)[‡‡]

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

2017 Read List[§§]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

All the Living by C. E. Morgan (read about it here and here)

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

A Cold Day for Murder by Dane Stabenow

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

The Snow Child by Eowen Ivey

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (Translated by Ted Goossen)

NOTES:

[*] Ignoring the obvious difficulties involved with limited time and the need to sleep, eat, and be present for other people and activities.

[†] As I wrote here, I used to start reading my library books as soon as I sat in the car. It’s thrilling to hear my child turn pages as I drive home.

[‡] Library fines also motivate reading choices, it seems.

[§] Although I enjoyed reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin poolside, it seemed a bit inappropriate. And took longer than reading at home did.

[**] To borrow (misappropriate?) a chapter title from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, “Comparisons Are Odious”.

[††] I’ve got to January, right? And there’s always next year’s list!

[‡‡] For #womenintranslation month, which is in August.

[§§] Most books I didn’t include on this list were books I’ve read or re-read for my child, including books I’ve scouted out well in advance of his transitioning into YA books.

The Tale of the Orphan Trope: How Writers Revitalize a Common Story

When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.

Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.

Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling

Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.

  • All the Living

In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.

640px-advert_for_the_national_children27s_home_and_orphange-_wellcome_l0040571
Advert for the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Ephemera Collection National Children’s Home and Orphanage (Great Britain). Published: circa 1920. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Unhappy Upbringings

Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.

  • The Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.

Ambiguous Identity and Transformation

Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]

After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.

Summary

While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.

NOTES:

[*] Most orphans (by definition) are children. Adults usually do not identify as orphans unless they lost their parents during childhood.

[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.

[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.

[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.

[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.

[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.

[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race

Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the women who performed the behind-the-scenes work that propelled American aviation triumphs during World War II and Space Age rocketeering. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on a particular group of pioneering women working at NACA/NASA,[*] the African-American women who overcame barriers imposed by both their gender and their race. Called computers, they were mathematicians whose work entailed calculating complex equations for the engineers engaged in the then emerging field of aeronautics.

The Call to Serve

The first female computing pool, then all white, formed due to necessity. Prior to 1935, the male (usually white) engineers performed their own calculations, a tedious task that slowed their research. Historian Beverly E. Golemba notes that “Because of the male shortage and the added attractiveness of paying women less, they rather reluctantly began to hire women as computers.” Despite their qualms, these white women soon proved themselves equal—and better—at the task. Although they earned less than male counterparts despite possessing equivalent bachelor degrees,[†] NACA still paid better than teaching did and permitted them to continue working long after marriage and the arrival of children.

The demand for human computers soon outstripped the supply of qualified white women available. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pressured by black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat to march on Washington, signed an executive order that desegregated the defense industry and made it possible for black women to become computers. Although advertisements for black computers were more discreet during this segregated era, they nonetheless attracted the attention of Dorothy Vaughn (the first black female supervisor) in 1943,[‡] one of the three computers Shetterly’s book features. Cold War concerns kept NACA’s Langley Research Center (located in Hampton, Virginia) retaining and continuing to hire more computers to process the vast data produced by the research conducted there.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race. Text by R. Gould
The Friden calculator was one of machines that human computers once used to perform complex calculations.

Calculating Times of Change

As Shetterly follows Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson (famed for calculating flight trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space missions) through the highlights of their careers into the late 1960s, she also performs the daunting task of capturing a cross-section of the eras in which these women worked. Moving from World War II to the Cold War and Space Race accompanied by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, she laces her narrative with layperson discussions of aeronautical innovations. Shetterly, too, describes the complex calculations (Johnson’s figures are compared to a symphony) while underscoring the human cost of miscalculations: loss of life. At times, one wishes for more biographical and less technical detail, but the perspective is critical for understanding her subject’s work. Shetterly correctly observes that it’s important to learn about the computers who worked at NACA/NASA and document their work—all while recording the obstacles these black women overcame.

Among the book’s poignant moments, Shetterly recounts Katherine Johnson’s[§] journey to Langley from West Virginia in 1953. Once her bus entered Virginia, she entered a segregated state; she and other black passengers were required to move to the bus’s back. Later, they all had to disembark as the bus would not travel through the black part of town. Johnson ignored segregation and gender-based discrimination when she could, unafraid to use a white only bathroom or ask why she, a female computer, could not attend the Space Task Force editorial meetings with the male engineers.

Mary Jackson, a Virginia native and Hampton local hired in 1951, discussed her frustration with unequal work conditions to an engineer who responded with an invitation to join his team; this move launched her career as the first female black engineer. To attain that rank, however, she needed special permission to go to classes at the segregated local high school she’d unable to attend as a teen. The school, which she expected to be superior to the one she matriculated from, was dilapidated: the full cost of segregated school systems was fewer and worse resources for all.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” were Dorothy Vaughn’s words to Golemba about her time at Langley. Disappointed that she did not again attain a management position after NASA integrated its staff in 1958, she launched many careers during her time as a supervisor (Katherine Johnson’s included).[**] Vaughn soon observed that computing machines would gain ascendancy, and she made it imperative that she and other human computers learn how to code them, thus making themselves indispensable to NASA. And it would be Johnson’s calculations that would confirm the accuracy of the new machines, giving NASA (not to mention astronaut John Glenn) confidence in the machine’s calculations.

Finally, Zeroing on Hidden Figures

When reading about these women’s accomplishments and considering how often the Space Race has been memorialized, it seems shocking that we didn’t know these women’s names earlier. Of the many computers named in Hidden Figures (both black and white), I only knew of Katherine Johnson beforehand. Shetterly acknowledges, as other authors do, the role that the women’s modesty played. She also adds that many people did know about the work these women undertook (particularly in Hampton, which happens to be the author’s hometown). Yet, this knowledge remained unseen by the public. As Shetterly indicated in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “…I think that it really does have to do with us…not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

Shetterly’s remarks here are hardly controversial: women’s work (particularly domestic) long has been undervalued and unappreciated. Writing Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race provides this much needed corrective accounting. Both black and white computers’ contributions alike were forgotten while white men they worked alongside were lauded. As reporter Virginia Biggins explained during a panel that discussed the role of human computers, she “just assumed they were all secretaries”. Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

NOTES:

[*] Respectively, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

[†] Golemba’s unpublished report indicated most computers pursued mathematical degrees because it was a subject at which they excelled in high school and that most intended to use the degree as part of a teaching career.

[‡] Shetterly discusses other black computers and their careers where appropriate but the book’s scope does not permit spending much time with them. However, her ongoing project, The Human Computer project, strives to capture the history of the women who served as computers.

[§] Katherine Johnson was then Katherine Goble, as her first husband was still alive.

[**] Although Shetterly focuses mostly on black women, she also exposes the gender-based struggles white women encountered where appropriate. When Dorothy Vaughn intervened on Katherine Johnson’s behalf and helped her obtain a permanent position (and promotion) to a team where she’d been temporarily assigned, Vaughn also helped a white computer gain the same appointment. Not having anyone to forward her cause, her request to join the team would otherwise been ignored.

Reading Women Month: Spreading the Word About Women Writers

Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf.

In celebration of their first year podcasting, Reading Women debuted Reading Women Month to encourage everyone to read great books written by or about women throughout June.[*] As a member of the newly formed Women Writers Network, I love to see women’s writing being discussed and promoted. The latest VIDA count demonstrates that women writers still publish less than their male counterparts. Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf. You can show your support by using the hashtag #readingwomenmonth when you post about the books you’re reading on social media like Twitter and Instagram.[†]

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read:

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

Which women writers do you love to read? Share your favorites in the comment section below!

NOTES:

 

[*] The event includes both reading challenges and photo challenges, as well as giveaways. Details are here.

[†] Feel free to use the #women_writers and #readingwomen to increase exposure of your posts!

[‡] I discuss Hidden Figures here.

[§] You can read my review of Swing Time here.