Migration, Friendship and Female Spaces in Gemma Ruiz Palà’s Wenling’s
By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie and Zarah Yesufu
After migrating from China to Spain in search of a better life, Wenling opens a nail salon that soon becomes a crossroad for countless women. Told in fragmented, conversational chapters, the plot centres on the observations of an unnamed documentarian narrator. During her visits to the salon, the young woman quickly befriends Wenling, her family and her regulars. Set in vibrant, multilingual Barcelona, Ruiz Palà’s Wenling’s is an immersive, light-hearted and beautifully contemplative novel that explores gender, language and cultural identity.
Setting the novel in a nail salon was “a political decision” for Ruiz Palà. Choosing an “eminently feminised space to be at the heart of the novel” was pivotal in deconstructing how fiction often depicts these places in a “stereotypical, parodic manner” as inherently negative. In a therapeutic sense, a “weekly session in a hair or manicure salon is a great way to care for both body and brain.” However, a salon also creates an “atmosphere of trust, complicity and freedom,” facilitating open communication and expression, “a rare gift for many women.”
In the first few pages, Ruiz Palà refers to gender expression, or one’s outward “markers of femininity,” as a prescription. The reader is soon left to contemplate a tension between the admiration of “beauty, accessories, looking after yourself, keeping clean” and the recognition that aesthetics are a part of what forms women into objects of male desire. For Ruiz Palà, the problem is that “patriarchy frames perceptions about these beauty practices” as assessments of female bodies based on their aesthetic conduct. According to the conclusions drawn from feminist academics, the best way to tackle the issue of imposed gender norms is to use them as we see fit. Ruiz Palà is also in favour of finding out the reasons “behind” these norms as another way to feel a sense of ownership.
At first, Ruiz Palà wanted her narrator to be “someone with a good enough income” to afford “a weekly manicure session,” as well as a person who could discover within herself the racism that is both “learned and embedded” in white Europeans. But then she thought it would be more effective to conceptualise someone from her own “cultural, journalistic world,” a sphere which perceives itself to be “totally immunised and sanitised” despite being the “most responsible for the continual perpetuation” of racial stereotypes through its communication of these to the masses. She also wanted her narrator to be someone like herself, a documentarian who “thinks she is anti-racist” but discovers that making such a claim, acting on it and “being consistent” are all different things.
While the narrator believes that she embraces the salon’s diversity, she initially displays an unconscious bias against Wenling’s husband, Yang, a less proficient Spanish speaker. Ruiz Palà wanted this attitude to show how we may “feel reticent towards ‘the other’,” given that socially embedded racism within Europe causes “a struggle to trust someone who isn’t socially validated.” By making the narrator “prey to this attitude,” Ruiz Palà indicates that racism “is in all of us, even in those people who think they are aware.” However, Yang’s character was also important for Ruiz Palà to showcase how “feminism excludes nobody for reasons of gender.” As a fundamental character in the salon, Yang and his “endearing sense of humour” prove that “women and men can coexist fraternally,” even in typically feminine spaces, “providing nobody tramples on the other.”
Wenling’s emphasises the need for a space for women to discuss their issues. The impact and success of the recent film release, Barbie, for example, is a testament to this need. Ruiz Palà agrees that physical meeting spaces for women are more necessary than ever because “many live everyday routines that distance them from their clan.” Romantic love and children can take priority over female friendships, and women “enter a state of isolation because of the gap existing between one another.” Spaces, like salons, where women can share experiences are relieving: ‘‘the sky opens up before you,” says Ruiz Palà.
As a translator, Peter Bush strives to “recreate the original style of the author.” He understands an author’s style as “an individual literary artefact communicating the nature of their characters and narrative.” In Wenling’s, the narrative is “rooted in the linguistic realities of a multilingual Barcelona,” and Ruiz Palà is versatile in capturing these nuances. The narrator herself is a highly educated woman who can both “quote Simone de Beauvoir” and “use very streetwise language.” However, many cultural expressions simply do not translate from Catalan into English. For example, Bush explains how the Catalan equivalent of the English idiom “a very different kettle of fish” is “figs from another basket.” This is because figs are “a common fruit in Spain” and therefore feature in many colloquial Catalan expressions. However, this expression would not be culturally relevant in English.
The narrator attempts to bridge the language barrier between herself and Wenling by speaking in broken Spanish. Bush reminds us that “language is political and is about power,” and by choosing to communicate in this way, Ruiz Palà’s narrator shows that she “cares to comprehend” Wenling. “There are few Catalan writers who attempt to do this,” says Bush, and some even disapprove. As a translator, he intended to “be sensitive to all the nuances present” in the story, reflecting Ruiz Palà’s choice not to use “the stereotypical broken Spanish spoken by Chinese characters in Catalan fiction where the ‘r’ or ‘rr’ is replaced by an ‘l’” in his reimagining of Wenling’s speech in English.