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

cover of magic doll with young girl illustrated and doll and chickens

a nutshell: narrated from the perspective of Adjoa, a young child, this exquisite book shares a deeply loving story of her mother’s journey towards pregnancy and birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll

a line: “Words do not have legs, but sometimes they can run fast!”

an image: one of my favourite parts was when the mother goes to the market to buy rice, millet, yams (see a glimpse below)

a thought: without a shadow of a doubt, this is the most beautiful book of all those I’ve read during my project – on its arrival I couldn’t stop turning each page to study the drawings and I loved how the story gently portrayed a struggle which many women face globally, often in silence

a fact: Yabouza closes with some fascinating insights into the geography and history behind the story – including her relationship with an Akua’ba doll that she came across in Bangui, the capital of her home country the Central African Republic, during childhood

want to read The Magic Doll? visit here

illustrations of women in a marketplace with many fruits and stunning patterns

‘In Which Language to Write’ by Odete Semedo (tr. Alejandro Aguilar)

a nutshell: alternating between languages, these poems reflect Semedo’s dislocating experience of living in both Portuguese and Guinea-Bissau Creole (‘Criollo’)

a line: “But what signs to leave | The grandchildren of this century?”

an image: the poet declares that she’ll leave a message on parchment in this Portuguese language that she misunderstands

a thought: I found it interesting how most of the verses are formed of questions (not statements) – such as whether the poet will talk in Portuguese despite it denying her art or muse, which led me to learn from Wiki that Guinea-Bissau Creole is the country’s language of informal literature

a fact: born in 1959, Semedo went on to assume prominent roles including Minister of National Education and Minister of Health

want to read ‘In Which Language to Write’? visit here

History Shelves by Sassy Ross

Sassy Ross

a nutshell: this extraordinary poem explores a father-daughter relationship, opening with a frail memory of volumes kept and closing with a frail memory of volumes lost – it’s a poem whose every line is exquisite & complex & powerful

a line: “I, | a junkie for words I could not pronounce”

an image: in the first verse the poet portrays her father skimming hieroglyphic texts, and I loved how she described his thumb as a hummingbird hovering above the page

a thought: I was deeply moved by this poem despite feeling like I was only scraping the surface of its multilayered meanings, then I learned that Ross’s father struggled with addiction – only then did I realise why I relate so strongly with her fears about being cut from the same cloth and her line about how her dad fought demons in his sleep

a fact: born in Castries, St Lucia, Ross grew up speaking a mixture of English and a French patois – she migrated to the US aged 10 and began writing poetry while studying at Pennsylvania State University

want to read ‘History Shelves’? visit here

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

a nutshell: incorporating an array of first-person narratives from Latino immigrants to the US, this book’s focal lens is on the complex dynamic between two families from Panamá and Mexico living in an apartment block in Delaware

a line: “You have to think like a gringa now … You have to believe that you’re entitled to happiness.”

an image: Alma recalls how she came to know her husband’s soft spots, like bruises on fruit, which in turn recalled for me the words of another character, Rafael Toro, as he remembered Panamá through the smell of car exhaust and sweet fruit

a thought: a teenage boy lets us in on how he felt it was ‘backwards’ for his parents to have fled Panamá for the US, that is, for the nation that had driven them out of theirs

a fact: Henríquez’s father is from Panamá and immigrated to the US in 1971, while her mother is from New Jersey and worked in Delaware public schools as a translator – Henríquez herself was born in Delaware but spent summers in Panamá

want to read The Book of Unknown Americans? visit here

In the Town of Joy and Peace by Zdravka Evtimova

book cover with eerie town lit by lampost

a nutshell: this strange maelstrom of a novel follows numerous women & girls from Radomir, a supposedly stagnant town in Bulgaria, as they take a shot at forging lives for themselves

a line: “Why should we, two intelligent ladies, trudge through this nasty clean air? Can’t you lie in bed where the freaking air is clean, too, and I’ll stretch and fold your legs for you?”

an image: I enjoyed the description of a character’s voice as thick as a ball of yarn, with the words she used as a heap of broken branches that someone had just set on fire

a thought: I found Dana a totally fascinating character, a matriarch with the monopoly over the town thanks to her wealth & forthright nature, and I think part of this fascination was that right up until the end I continued to have zero idea what she was about

a fact: I hadn’t expected it, but Radomir is a real town located in the Radomir Municipality in the Pernik Province of western Bulgaria

want to read In the Town of Joy and Peace? visit here

Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra (tr. Achy Obejas)

a nutshell: following the suspicious death of her parents, a Havana-based poet writes an award-winning poetry collection, finds herself under constant surveillance by the government, and embarks on a strange relationship with a Hollywood filmmaker

a line: “My black dress seems to shatter when it comes in contact with the night. The full moon poses a threat from infinity and a shiver releases my desire to feel something new.”

an image: about midway through the book, the narrator describes a dreamlike scene of jasmine mist, in which she experiences the lethargy from which poerty is born, with the salt of a bay on her lips, reconstructing the landscape in water and India ink

a thought: among the novel’s name-dropping (beginning with the dedication, ‘for Gabo’) is an aside about the narrator having once been seated at a table next to Herta Müller (whose novel, set during Ceaușescu’s regime, I read earlier in the project) where she heard Müller say she recited poetry to herself whenever she was taken to the Securitate for interrogations – I love finding these connections between the books I read

a fact: on starting this book I knew very little about censorship in Cuba, and learned that this one-party state has continued year after year to be Latin America’s worst media freedom violator in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index – in the 2020 index, Cuba ranks 171 out of 180 countries

want to read Revolution Sunday? visit here

Sarab by Raja Alem (tr. Leri Price)

veiled woman on front cover of Sarab book with white and black scarf

a nutshell: this sweeping novel follows a woman whose familial devotion leads her to participate in the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, ultimately transporting her far from the Saudi desert where she grew up

a line: “Is it a duty in life to kill those who aren’t an exact copy of ourselves?”

an image: at one moment, a character opens the door to an apartment immersed in darkness where he could’ve cut the curtains of depression with a knife (PTSD is an ongoing theme)

a thought: I was intrigued by Alem’s tacit condemnation of gender stereotypes – how she portrays & subverts expectations of how a man or a woman should behave, e.g. probing a protagonist’s initial shock at a man in tears or traditional disgust at women’s menstruation – the latter is an issue that recurs throughout the novel

a fact: I began the book with virtually zero knowledge of this event in 1979 and learned more about it here; interestingly it seems the House of Saud’s response was essentially: ‘the solution to the religious upheaval was simple: more religion’

want to read Sarab? visit here

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a page from the book with words highlighted 'tell them we are afraid'

a nutshell: this dazzling debut collection from a Marshallese poet & activist is a rallying call to action on climate change, while also carrying the traumas of racism and US nuclear testing

a line: “Tell them | we are afraid”

an image: so many pages of this collection are stunningly shaped – from the words scattered across pages to mirror a child’s hair falling out from chemo to the words that weave a basket to reflect the matrilineal society of the Marshallese

a thought: at several points, the poet notes the strain of colourism that runs through society (such as “Ma’s consistent warning” to remember bonnet so she doesn’t “turn brown”) which reminded me of the writer Shazia Usman’s book, Kaluti, on self-love in the face of such attitudes

a fact: the destruction wreaked by the United States’ nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands crops up in many heart-breaking poems throughout the collection; as the poet writes, “most Marshallese can say they’ve mastered the language of cancer”

want to read Iep Jāltok? visit here

Saman by Ayu Utami (tr. Pamela Allen)

Saman book with cover of woman writing on park bench and Empire State building in backdrop; book against blue sky and trees

a nutshell: this unusual novel drops in & out of the lives of several sexually liberated Indonesian women and a former Catholic priest, Saman, while exploring the perils facing a rubber tapping community

a line (or a few): “Something can suddenly evaporate from our memory, like a ghost, like a dream. We can feel the trace of it, somewhere within ourselves, without being able to reconstruct it anymore. We are left with hatred, anger, fear, love. But we don’t know why.”

an image: one character, Shakuntala, envisages her country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum – at one end is inefficiency or an unwillingness to act, on the other are all the ‘excesses’

a thought: women’s rights are a recurring theme throughout the novel, particularly in the chapter by Shakuntala, who rejects a visa application’s insistence that she take her father’s name as Javanese don’t have surnames (instead she decides to split her own name in two: ‘Shakun Tala’)

a fact: published in 1998, the novel was controversial due to its sexual explicitness and even prompted questions as to whether it was Utami’s own work (!!!); it ultimately became viewed as a ground-breaking work and sold 100,000 copies, as well as igniting the sastra wangi literary movement – a category that Utami herself has criticised

want to read Saman? visit here

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of Butterflies against blue sky and sea

a nutshell: reaching from 1938 to 1994, this utterly compelling novel reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas‘) – symbols of hope & defiance during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic

a line: “I couldn’t stand the idea of being locked up in any one life”

an image: an extract from Mate’s fictionalised diary describes a current running among the women prisoners as like an invisible needle stitching them together into the glorious, free nation they’re becoming

a thought: there are so so many thoughts I could share here, but suffice to say that this was for me the most moving book I’ve encountered in my project so far and my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it

a fact: after the author’s father was involved in an underground plot cracked by the the Dominican Republic’s notorious Military Intelligence Service, Alvarez’s family fled for New York City in August 1960 – less than four months before the murder of the three Mirabel sisters, who were members of that underground

want to read In the Time of the Butterflies? visit here

PS: as part of my human rights work I was involved in promoting the 16 Days of Activism a few months ago, yet it was only at the very end of the novel that I remembered this annual campaign begins on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – a day that commemorates the legacy of the Mirabal sisters.