Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt

a nutshell: this stunningly incisive memoir of identity by Guyanese-born, Canadian-raised, UK-residing author Tessa McWatt is a journey through body and time in attempt to answer the question of what – or rather – who am I?

a line: “Why does race exist? To do the accounting for who will have more and who will have less.”

IMG_5498an image: in her chapter ‘Hair’, McWatt is sceptical of the notion that Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama (both of who have ‘relaxed’/straightened hair) should be seen as straightforward icons of progress and compares their public image with the FBI’s ‘Wanted’ poster for Angela Davis – McWatt presciently disputes the idea that Prince Harry’s marriage demonstrates a new, non-racist Britain (Shame on Me was published before the UK’s rabid press essentially forced Markle to leave the country); with all this in mind, it’s worth noting the exasperating search results when I started to type in this book’s title >>>

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a thought: having reread Wide Sargasso Sea just last week, I was intrigued by McWatt’s evolving relationship with Jane Eyre & Antoinette/Bertha Mason – the way in which Jean Rhys’ story influenced how she thought about plantation dynamics and how she felt about the time spent by her grandfather (whose surname, coincidentally, was Eyre) in an asylum after a nervous breakdown in what was then British Guiana; McWatt reveals that pyschoanalysis allowed her to access both Jane and Bertha in a less divisive manner

a fact: it continues to sicken me that, as mentioned towards the end of Shame on Me, following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 the UK Government paid out what was at the time 40% of its national budget to ‘compensate’ slave owners – huge sums of which the slaves never received a single pound and, on the contrary, many descendants of slaves paid for across nearly two centuries until this enormous debt was paid off in 2015

want to read Shame on Me? visit here

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

book spine on side of sofa, the farm by joanne ramos

a nutshell: an eerie depiction of hypercapitalism & bodily colonisation, this novel follows a Filipina immigrant to the US who commits to being a ‘Host’ at Golden Oaks – a venture sort of like the Uber of pregnancies, where immigrants are paid to get a foetus from A (insemination) to B (birth) for the convenience of rich clients

a line: “But how many Good, Obedient Anyones truly make it in the world?”

an image: Ramos often conjures up an acutely oppressive atmosphere in her portrayal of life at the ‘Farm’, particularly in one scene where she describes humble bloated bodies, a crushing sky above, and the possibility of unnoticed shards of glass below (after a bottle is smashed)

a thought: this book was suggested by Cara Teo Ong, aka thebookingchild, who got in touch with the idea of a ‘buddy read’; after we had both read the novel, we shared our thoughts – take a look at Cara’s recap of our conversation here & read her own review here!

a fact: yesterday I stumbled across a news article (through my work in women’s rights) about 32 Cambodian women who received suspended jail terms for carrying the babies of Chinese clients – this is no ‘dystopia’, this is now

want to read The Farm? visit here

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

a nutshell: this is breathless, bewildering, bestial fiction streaming from the pulsating mind of a young woman near-delirious with lust & frustration

a line: “I’m thinning out, becoming just an idea”
a bonus line: “I despise this life where in the kitchen at a certain time of day the water starts to boil” (I couldn’t choose just one; almost every line kicks like a neckful of Fernet)

an image: the narrator’s imaginings /recollections?/ of her mother’s sexual exploits are intensely disturbing – the volatile, perverse mother-daughter dynamic is the novel’s nucleus

a thought: I’ll be processing my 1000s of thoughts on Harwicz’s incendiary writing for some time! for now: one of the things that interested me a lot was the degree to which she pushed me to question what I’m willing to believe from the narrator – I closed the book with no idea how much was delusion/dream/reality

a fact: the novel is currently being adapted for the stage in Argentina, which I find a very curious prospect… I’ll be watching that space!

want to read Feebleminded? visit here

[PS. big thanks to Charco Press for the copy!]

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

a nutshell: at once sinister and compelling, this psychological thriller opens in Vienna with an invitation to share cake and rapidly spirals into a nightmare of uncontrollable obsession and oppression

a line: “The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced … I had always known that there was no safety net”

an image: the narrator’s memories of the trepidation that had always smothered family meals – particularly the way in which her grandfather used to ravage all her childhood experiences with food – are devastating to read

a thought: cleverly written, this novel pivots on the internal and external horrors of suffering from addiction (principally eating disorders) and abuse of bodies/minds; it is no easy read

a fact: the eeriest character, Frau Hohenembs, is seen to resemble the late Empress Elisabeth (‘Sissi’) of Austria, who obsessively kept her weight below 50 kilos through periods of complete fasting and rigorous exercise regimes

 

want to read The Empress and the Cake? visit here

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

a nutshell: a sultry, atmospheric amble through Singapore from the 1970s to 2020, this novel ponders three troubled women: teenage Szu, her mother Amisa, and Szu’s friend Circe

a line: “I longed for a thick, soupy silence, calm walls behind which nothing hateful happened”

an image: Teo delivers many beautiful images but for me the stand-out was in fact for its hilarity – the hideously funny, highly anthropomorphised imagery of Circe’s mischievous tapeworm

a thought: conversations between Szu and Circe – both of whom are school outcasts – were weighted with very real teen angst, e.g. seeking out things to buy that’ll help them feel prettier, stronger, inoculated against the world

a fact: ‘ponti’ is short for Pontianak – a female vampiric ghost in Malay mythology (a role that Amisa, an actress of bygone days, plays in a trilogy of horror movies … and real life?)

 

want to read Ponti? visit here

The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal el Saadawi (tr./ed. Dr Sherif Hetata)

Nawal el Saadawi's The Hidden Face of Eve

a nutshell: published in 1977, this landmark discourse on women in the Arab world is as disturbing and compelling as ever – probing FGM, sexual violence/suppression, fertility, marriage, injustice, sex work, religion, history and literature

a line: an extract from Article 67 of Egypt’s Common Law on Marriage here typified the prevailing attitude to women – “No alimony is liable to a wife if she refuses to yield herself to her husband … is the victim of a rape … or if she is suffering from any condition which might prevent the husband from utilising her as a wife”

an image: though the opening scene of Nawal’s own circumcision made a profoundly indelible impression, another image that stayed with me was her depiction of Arab feminist writer May Ziade’s exceptional mind & tragic end – personal setbacks prompted relatives to force her into Asfouria Hospital for Mental Diseases where eventually a report proved she was of sound mind; she returned to Egypt and died alone, aged 55, in a small flat in Cairo 

a thought: Nawal often returns to an essential paradox in how girls are brought up in the Arab world – the insistence on the need to attract an eligible husband, but simultaneously to put her ‘dangerous seductiveness’ out of sight

a fact: scholars have uncovered many depictions of women as the same size as men from the preliminary stages of ancient Egyptian society, indicating gender equality; a subsequent decrease in their size in such drawings/engravings corresponds with the appearance of private property (2420-2140 BC) – Nawal also points out that among ancient Romans the word ‘familia’ constituted a man’s possessions i.e. land, houses, money, slaves, women, children

 

want to read The Hidden Face of Eve? visit here

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker)

a nutshell: a quick, vaguely terrifying story about an intrusion into one’s home and mind – in fact, the crisscrossing of many existential borders

a line: “You grow accustomed to this: laughing in the face of the languages you don’t understand”

an image: flocks of pelicans repeatedly fly overhead, disappearing always into the same unknown place in the sky

a thought: or rather, thoughtlessness on my part – I assumed the narrator was a woman until alerted otherwise; it seemed like I had a subconscious preconception that women only write women (turns out, gender is a significant issue in the book in any case!)

a fact:  the translator (Sarah Booker)’s note points to The Iliac Crest’s context – an outbreak of femicides at the start of the 20th century, which prompted the author to highlight the disappearing/silencing of women’s bodies

 

want to read The Iliac Crest? visit here