In celebration of Women In Translation Month, Culture Writer Joi Foote reviews The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna (translated from Latvian by Jayde Will)
The power of short stories never ceases to amaze me. Although they are short in nature, the writers of such work brilliantly capture their characters and develop the corresponding storylines despite the limiting space constraints of this form. This has certainly been done here as The Secret Box (2017) offers readers a trio of tales written by Latvian writer Daina Tabūna (translated from Latvian by Jayde Will, and with illustrations by Mark Andrew Webber), delving into the perspective of three strong, unnamed female protagonists.
Tabūna’s three stories in The Secret Box (published by local publishers The Emma Press) originally formed part of her short story collection titled Pirmã reize (2014), which was shortlisted for Best Debut at the 2015 Annual Latvian Literary Awards, as well as receiving widespread critical acclaim. The English translations of Tabūna’s stories were written by Jayde Will, a literary translator who specialises in Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian texts.
For years the art of translation was merely reduced to a means of reciprocating the work of another, but this is a grave misunderstanding. Literary translations are works of art and culturally significant texts in themselves, with many great canonical writers devoting their life’s work to translations.
A common thread between the three stories in The Secret Box is the heroine’s process of transformation in each one. We see the characters undergo development and Tabūna takes the readers along for the ride. In the first story ‘Deals with God,’ we see the childlike narrator explore her relationship to God. When her grandmother or ‘Baba’ scolds the child for her lack of faith and devotion, it sets her on a journey of exploring the wonders of this omnipresent being.
In the second story ‘The Secret Box,’ again from a younger perspective, it begins with our heroine and the relationship she has with the male figures in her life: i.e, her father and her brother. The story climaxes with the discovery that they might just be too old to be playing with paper dolls.
In the last story, ‘The Spleen, My Favourite Organ,’ we seem to land ourselves helplessly in a relationship of sorts, with the writer’s stream-of-consciousness style lending itself nicely to our ongoing involvement.
My favourite story has to be ‘The Secret Box.’ The pluralised term of the ‘Edgars’ when referring to both her brother and father is something I thoroughly enjoyed – a simple and subtle act that grouped the two characters into a singular male figure, a move that represented their relationship, or lack thereof. It was interesting that even as such dynamics shifted, this label still remained intact.
Additionally, as a child who tended to have an overactive imagination, playing with dolls was something that excited me – creating lives, families, and backstories for imaginary characters and playing out scenarios, both good and bad. Tabūna unlocks these memories through her writing, allowing the reader to be privy to such moments Edgar Junior and our protagonist share. Even as an adult now, the power of the imagination is something I try never to forget, something I took away in my reading of this story.
In a collection of short stories, you naturally have those that you love and stories that do not capture your attention in the same way. For me ‘The Spleen, My Favourite Organ’ was the latter. Not to take anything away from the story, but it took me longer to become engrossed in the plot line. I missed that feeling that excites all book lovers: namely, being unable to put your current read down. While the narrators of the first two stories ‘Deals with God’ and ‘The Secret Box’ were so clearly visible to me, it was harder to conceptualise the character of ‘The Spleen, My Favourite Organ,’ even after going back and retracting my initial steps.
Overall, The Secret Box made for an enjoyable read, and serves as a reminder that stories do not need to be long to satisfy that literary urge.
Enjoyed this? Read more from Redbrick Culture here!