10 Favourite Books in 2020

10. Eve Out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) – Mauritius

This novel was among the deliveries from the biiiiig Better World Books order I placed in March just as Melbourne’s earlier phase of restrictions began – and wow, it was a compelling distraction. It’s a short, harrowing story of four teenagers trying to survive the violence of their neighbourhood in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital. I follow the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on Twitter and had high expectations for this book. It surpassed them.

 

9. Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett – Kiribati

The arrival of this extraordinary book was a rare and much-needed source of excitement deep into Melbourne’s second (ultra intense) lockdown in September. I came across Australian/Kiribati writer Marita Davies’s work while researching writers from the Pacific and was instantly keen to read this story of a child confronting life on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The importance of climate-related books – especially for younger generations – goes without saying, particularly during a week when extreme weather and coastal destruction yet again dominates headlines in Australia.

 

8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. Brian FitzGibbon) – Iceland

It was a wintry evening in May when I read this gentle novel with my first foster cat on my lap (three more would follow across the two lockdowns!). The story very much transported me along the protagonist’s journey from his Icelandic home to a monastery rose garden in need of loving care. Quiet, slow and meditative, it felt like exactly what I needed at that point of this fast-paced and barely fathomable year.

 

7. Trans by Juliet Jacques – United Kingdom

I ordered this book in Verso’s December sale a year ago and read it as soon as it arrived in January. Juliet’s memoir is an incredibly honest account of the years that led up to her transition, weaving in many insights into the world of gender politics. The media industry comes across terribly and I wish things had progressed since, but I write this in the wake of two very transphobic opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. [PS: if you’re looking for stunning fiction by a trans writer, I recommend jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty which I borrowed from Yarra Libraries a few weeks before this memoir.]

 

6. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle) – Ecuador

This story collection came as a highly anticipated gift from Santiago-based translator Natascha Bruce for #WITMonth Book Swap, organised by Meytal Radzinski in August. When the book was first recommended to me I was slightly tentative, given the subject matter of domestic abuse being very close to home, but I’m really glad I read it – mainly for how astonishingly powerful a writer Ampuero is. I had been struggling to engage fully with books at the time (14 weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown) and this collection shook me out of the stupor.

 

5. The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)Central African Republic

As it was only published in September, this was one of the very last books I read for my project – and it was, without a doubt, the most visually beautiful. It’s one of two children’s books featuring on my 2020 top ten (the other being Teaote and the Wall) and I think there’s something to be said for taking time away from screens/small font just to enjoy wonderful imagery and storytelling in fewer words. Narrated through the eyes of a young girl, the book follows a mother’s process towards getting pregnant and giving birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll. With these important words and expressive images, this book was totally worth the wait.

 

4. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)Macedonia

This was among the most immersive books I sank into this year. After hearing only good things, I read Dimkovska’s between Melbourne’s two lockdowns while I was on a weekend trip to the Dandenong Ranges and predictably got pretty lost in the pages! The story is told by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, who is venturing towards personal independence and romantic love – through communist Yugoslavia and further afield. A memorable book that has stayed with me.

 

3. The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)Suriname

This book was bound to be in my top three of the year – I was completely addicted to the story back in early March. We were still working in offices at that point, and I was reading it right through my lunchbreaks. In fact, my review reminded me that a colleague even comforted me one break when I was visibly upset by a plot twist! Set in the 18th century, it’s a tale of love and cruelty under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch Empire. I’ve recommended it to friends since and apparently they’ve been 100% absorbed by it too!

 

2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia AlvarezDominican Republic

When people ask me about my very favourite books since I began this blog, In The Time of Butterflies always springs to mind. The story reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas’) who symbolised hope and defiance during their country’s dictatorship from 1938 to 1994. To quote my own review, “my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it”. It was also a great chance to learn more about the women whose legacy sparked the 16 Days of Activism – a campaign that I focused on promoting in my human rights work.

 

1. Cantoras by Carolina de RobertisUruguay

There’s no way to put into words quite how much I loved this novel. Set at the time of the Uruguyan dictatorship in the 1970-80s, this is a breathtaking story about five women who together explore the ways we can love one another – from erotic passion to close friendship to unconditional familial love. The book not only made me laugh and cry, but also left me fundamentally wanting to become a better reader and writer. If this sounds hyperbolic, take a look at the book’s Goodreads page – I’m far from the only one who was profoundly affected by Cantoras!

 

Read my full list of reviews since mid-2018

 

#100bestWiT

100 Best Women Writers in Translation

Dropping in just ahead of the deadline to post my top ten (so far) – here they are!

  1. Iran: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)
  2. Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (tr. Lawrence Schimel)
  3. Spain (Catalan): Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf (tr. Mara Faye Letham)
  4. India: Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)
  5. Colombia: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)
  6. Côte d’IvoireAya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie (tr. Helge Dascher)
  7. Argentina: Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)
  8. Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (tr. Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson)
  9. Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)
  10. HungaryThe Door by Magda Szabó (tr. Len Rix)

“I never had this idea of a nation”: thinking global with Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days book by Jenny Erpenbeck against a brick wall

Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”

Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck
Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck in Melbourne

Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”

It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”

As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”

“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”

At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.

Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.

“I know the feeling of being afraid”

Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”

So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”

And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.


Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here

Five favourite books of 2018

A few reflections on the books I most enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order!)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

One of the earliest novels I picked up for my project, Disoriental had me thoroughly gripped on a long bus journey through Slovenia in July. (I was so invested in what happened to Kimiâ that I didn’t even realise we had arrived at our destination.) Mirroring her main protagonist, the author is likewise the daughter of exiled Iranian intellectuals. The book’s themes in fact echoed through many other women writers’ works I’ve read since – ancestry, authority,  liberty, identity – but there was something acutely searing about Kimiâ’s story. 100% recommend.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf (tr. Mara Faye Letham)

It was around two hot chocolates in on an overcast August (!) afternoon that I realised how much of a personal connection I’d have with this novel-notes-autofiction-travelogue book (it really is as composite as all that). This came about in (i) the narrator’s recollections of moulding herself to fit with her brother’s autism (ii) her appetite for exploring the unknown (iii) her curiosity about language – Catalan to her felt reminiscent of what my Welsh language is to me. A unique, exquisite book.

Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)

I was whisked through this dreamy blur of a novel in the midst of our late summer heatwave in September. So addicted was I that I finished it on just the second day of reading, on a slightly-too-long lunch break, and could hardly wait to flick back through to write my mini-review. I loved how Bandyopadhyay emphasised the tensions of being both mother and writer by playing with the narrative voice, and Sinha’s translation from the original Bengali was genuinely breathtaking at some points.

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Shortly after reading this sharp, entertaining story collection in October I had the thrill of meeting the author at the Free Word Centre. Robayo is as insightful (yet self-deprecating!) in person as her writing suggests. Fish Soup probes corners of society that remain largely impenetrable. It’s unapologetic, astute – as well as humorous and devastating in turn.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft)

I knew as I was finishing this idiosyncratic book that I’d have to revisit the author’s writing after my project. I found Flights at times overwhelming (perhaps since I was reading it, unfittingly, on a sizzling beach on the Côte d’Azur) but dazzling in its seesawing between panoramic and microscopic outlooks. The union of Tokarczuk and Croft makes for prose that’s impossible to forget.