The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shahidi (tr. Altima Group)

book cover with woman in red dress in beautiful countryside

a nutshell: these four stories give a rare glimpse of what life can look like amid social unrest (particularly with reference to perestroika) across three generations in Tajikstan, recounting episodes of love, loss and ultimately hope

a line: “The world is not without good people and it is inherent that I join them at the helm to bring joy, kindness and happiness to others”

an image: I loved the description of memory as an unwritten book (also can’t help but share one of the wonderful illustrations within the pages – see below!)

a thought: time & time again in the books I’ve read during this project there’s been a comment on the depth and breadth of women’s suffering worldwide and this one was no exception, noting how hard it is to be a woman following an account of a predatory older neighbour accosting and later threatening a single mother

a fact: born in Leningrad in 1955, Shahidi graduated in journalism from Tajik University and wrote this collection in Russian – her hope is that the English edition is just the start of it being translated into other languages

want to read The City Where Dreams Come True? visit here

drawing of three women by water

Le Journal de Maya by Coralie Frei

cat on cover of kindle, black and white

[note: I read this in the original French as it is not yet available in translation]

a nutshell: at times hilariously melodramatic and perfectly ‘feline’, this diary of a five-year-old Siamese cat will have many familiar scenes for cat lovers such as myself

a line: “this is my philosophy: Patience, virtue of cats”

an image: Frei renders even the simplest of acts beautifully, such as when joy gives Maya the wings to jump and land heavily on the sink

a thought: I thoroughly enjoyed reading these observations from a cat’s perspective – particularly the comment on how humans possess the art of complicating their lives (if only we took a leaf out of our cat’s book!)

a fact: Frei is the first Comorian woman to have written a novel, and has also written poetry

want to read Le Journal de Maya? visit here

Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle)

cockfight book yellow cover against blanket floral

a nutshell: through 13 stories of extraordinary power, this steely debut from Ecuadorian writer Ampuero spotlights the ruinous & cyclical nature of domestic abuse

a line: “But it was just faith, the most pathetic of feelings. Faith didn’t do a goddamn thing”

an image: Ampuero is astonishingly talented at building tension, such as when one character describes how the presence of her friends’ father means they had to whisper and the air filled with an electric energy, wet, like when a huge storm is coming

a thought: I was bowled over time & time again by these stories, particularly their dagger-like endings, and finished the book within hours (which really is something, given that I’ve struggled to engage fully with books as we approach our 14th week of lockdown no.2 in Melbourne) – one thought that’s stuck in my head is a protagonist’s comment about vacations in these countries being all about contrasts – I have been guilty of this, a desire for contrasts, in my travels

a fact: this interview is a fascinating exploration of the mind behind Cockfight (& I couldn’t agree more with Ampuero that there’s nothing more profound than the harm your family can cause you; as she shares, “You can leave your family, I did it many, many years ago, but your family does not leave you”)

want to read Cockfight? visit here

Les Enfants du Khat by Mouna-Hodan Ahmed

Town beside water on book cover, sat on desk next to coffee, pencil and plant

a nutshell: this unique novel follows the life of an eldest daughter who has to grow up quickly due to her father’s addiction to khat, a hallucinogenic herb, which wreaks havoc across society – with particularly sinister impacts on women

a line: “Pourquoi sommes-nous obligés de retoucher son chef-d’œuvre? Sommes-nous plus savant que lui?” | “Why are we forced to retouch his masterpiece? Are we more knowledgeable than him?” – on female genital mutilation (FGM) and God’s will

an image: throughout this hard-hitting novel, Ahmed is unsparing in her depictions of the violence against women that exists not only within Djibouti but globally – from domestic abuse to sexual coercion to FGM

a thought: the book opens with a quote from Pius Ngandu Nkashama about African youth being at a crossroads, and this seems to be the ongoing theme of Les Enfants du Khat – the potential power of young people to generate change

a fact: I was intrigued by the beautiful image on the book’s cover and discovered it was a photo of Tadjoura, one of Djibouti’s oldest towns & an important port for many centuries; Tadjoura evolved into an early Islamic centre with the arrival of Muslims shortly after the Hijra, and is also known for its whitewashed buildings, nearby beaches, and mosques

want to read Les Enfants du Khat? visit here

Man Wortet Sich die Orte Selbst by Iren Nigg (tr. Marissa Grünes)

a nutshell: not yet published in English, this book (Wording the Places Oneself) consists of prose – from short vignettes to novellas – in which Liechenstein author Nigg explores the creative writing proces

a line: “To flirt with misfortune, allow one’s thoughts to circle it: this would never occur to children. The form of the circle isn’t meant for that… Sometimes life is winter. Nature! lets it happen. Fare well – a beautiful wish, lovely! like my cat.”

an image: I loved the description of the snow having been bejeweled by the sun

a thought: at one point the narrator poses a riddle: what is greater than God & more evil than the devil? The poor have it. The happy need it. And when you eat it, you die. (I didn’t get it)

a fact: this is Nigg’s second book and was among the 2011 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature which recognises the best new or emerging authors in the EU – I read a translated excerpt through the website

want to read Man Wortet Sich die Orte Selbst? 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

The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso (tr. Angel Gurria-Quintana)

The Return book with picture of dog, against sandy background

a nutshell: this gripping child’s-eye-view story follows a family’s fragmented relocation from Luanda to Lisbon amidst the Angolan War of Independence in 1975

a line: “the empire was there, in that waiting room, a tired empire, in need of house and food, a defeated and humiliated empire, an empire no-one wanted to know about”

an image: the scene in which Rui, the young narrator, watches his dog run behind the family car as they flee Angola was very heart-breaking, especially since I (comparatively trivially, of course) said goodbye to a much-much-much-loved pet last year when moving to another country

a thought: I was impressed by how Cardoso made me feel both sympathy and disdain for the returnees simultaneously; the ongoing ‘purgatory’ atmosphere for the kids scraping by while waiting to hear of relatives’ fates was hard to read – but so too was the ignorant racism exhibited by the former colonialists, even the children

a fact: the author grew up in Angola before leaving for Portugal in similar war-induced circumstances as her child protagonist; please send tips of Angolan women writers for me to read next!

want to read The Return? visit here

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (tr. Stefan Tobler)

a nutshell: forget plot/character, this is a 1973 “brain tempest” (Água Viva was intended to convey ~a thing that bubbles~) from one of Brazil’s most celebrated authors

a line: “I know that my gaze must be that of a primitive person surrendered completely to the world, primitive like the gods who only allow the broad strokes of good and evil and don’t want to know about good tangled up like hair in evil, evil that is good”

an image: two words. cat’s placenta | two bonus words. soft oyster

a thought: there are many lofty thoughts aired in this philosonovella (yes I just made up that word) but the one that stopped me in my tracks was one simple remark by Lispector – animals don’t laugh

a fact: the famous singer Cazuza read this book 111 times

 

want to read Água Viva? visit here

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

a nutshell: a desolate piece of Lithuanian survival literature in which Dalia recounts her deportation, aged 14, to a Siberian gulag and the years of gruelling manual labour that followed in the Arctic tundra

a line“Images from the past can be more painful than a branding iron. They tear me apart. But they’ve also done me a favour. They’ve ignited a furious desire to live, to persevere…”

an image: Dalia’s appalling descriptions of gangrenous, immobile deportees disintegrating on their pallets or freezing to death with hallucinations of hot coffee in tortuous blizzards sear themselves onto the memory

a thought: reading her memories of such brutal suffering, it’s sad to note that Dalia never saw these pages come out into the open; fearful of the KGB, she buried the scraps of paper in a garden and it was only in 1991 – four years after her death – that they were found

a factmost of the fellow deportees depicted by Dalia are women and children, reflecting how 70% of the 130,000+ people among the Soviet mass deportations from Lithuania were women and children

 

want to read Shadows on the Tundra? visit here

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

a nutshell: Ikstena braids together two very moving accounts of growing up under the Soviet occupation of Latvia – one from a mother & one from her daughter – to portray the crushing weight of societal oppression/terror on families

a line“We were destined for a somnambulant existence and condemned to call it life”

an image: milk is a recurring symbol – at one point a teacher is rendered speechless by the mother suggesting her daughter’s hatred of milk may stem from the fact that she didn’t breastfeed so as to protect her child from the breast milk of a person who didn’t want to live (elsewhere the mother refers to it as the bitter milk of incomprehension, of extinction)

a thought: the daughter’s realisation that her struggle to connect her mother to life & light in this world would alway end in stalemate hit me hard as a profound comment on the impossibility of banishing another person’s demons

a fact: between the individual stories, this novella gives many insights into existing under “the Russian boot” in 20th-century Latvia, e.g. travel requests often met with netselesoobrazno (non-essential) which regularly prevented people taking trips abroad – even for family members’ funerals

 

want to read Soviet Milk? visit here