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Review: A conversation with Gemma Ruiz Palà and Peter Bush on "Wenlings"

Eilidh Rivers-Bell discusses new translation of Gemma Ruiz Palà's novel "Wenlings" and explores the intentions behind the work.

Image courtesy of The Good Book Shop on Instagram

By Eilidh Rivers Bell , Third Year, English and Philosophy

Promoting the recent translation of her work Wenlings, Gemma Ruiz Palà and her translator Peter Bush appeared at 'The Good Book Shop' in St George to discuss racism in Europe, the complexities of translating novels, and why we should all be feminists.

A prominent Catalan author, journalist and the first woman to win the Saint Jordi Novel Prize in 19 years, Gemma Ruiz Palà is already well established in the literary world. Her second novel Wenlings is an unashamedly confrontational exploration of race, class and gender in Barcelona. Set in a nail salon run by matriarch Wenling, who is originally from China, Ruiz Palà takes a distinctly feminised place as a location where race and class boundaries break down. The narrator, an unnamed journalist, draws upon Ruiz Palà’s own experience, observing the diverse range of individuals who frequent the salon and recounting their stories.

Ruiz Palà’s previous work also focuses on the experience of women, asking how it is at all possible that people wouldn’t be feminists. The creative choice to use a nail salon as the venue for the events which unfold in ‘Wenlings’ is deliberate. Ruiz Palà observes that traditionally men’s spaces, such as bars, are often glorified in fiction, while women’s spaces are ignored, she looks to
shift this narrative, and does so successfully.

Even from the small extract read (in both Catalan and English) there is little doubt that the novel aims to address racism, the authors admitting that the narrative really could be set anywhere in Europe; the issue is not at all isolated to Barcelona. Ruiz Palà is not afraid to point fingers, even at herself, admitting that “in Europe we are racist by birth” and that it is up to us to actively unlearn this. Drawing from the experiences of those close to her, whom the book is dedicated to in Chinese, 'Wenlings’ gives voice to those who Ruiz Palà does not believe have been accurately represented in fiction. She seeks to shift what she sees as a tradition of the Asian community being badly treated in European literature. “I want to break the ice” she says, acknowledging that the first step towards change is always the most difficult.

‘Wenlings’ is Gemma Ruiz Palà’s first novel to be translated into English, a significant achievement, as she labels English to be top of the linguistic hierarchy and the first step towards more international success. Peter Bush described the importance of translating while retaining linguistic nuance as the novel is written in both Catalan and Spanish. Bush describes reading (and in his case translating) literature as an act of “imagination and empathy”, that there is always something that can be learnt from reading about the stories of others.

Both Gemma Ruiz Palà and Peter Bush spoke with eloquence and charm, captivating the audience. In closing, Ruiz Para returned to her central themes, observing that the movement against racism and sexism is happening, but with reluctance rather than enthusiasm. This is not enough; “we have to change”.

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