Moments of Nil by Flora Tavu

a nutshell: gathering poetry & short stories side-by-side, this is an accumulation of thoughts from Brunei-raised writer Flora Tavu

a line: “leave us cold with the coldness of lost hopes and dreams raining down our sanity” – ‘Unthink’

an image: a disturbing reference to a chopping board recurs throughout the pages – the first time it appears is in ‘Lullaby’, a disconcertingly gentle title for a poem that includes blood-spattered walls

a thought: on the inside flap, Tavu expresses her hope that after reading this, a reader would be able to know the person that she is – a vulnerable statement of self-exposure given the subject matter that follows

a fact: the contents of this book were written over the span of a decade and half, 1998 – 2012; at times Tavu’s mind would go blank – from three days to three months, even a year – then at other times the writing would rush out like a hurricane, she shares

want to read Moments of Nil? visit here

Back to Life by Wendy Coakley Thompson

kindle image of cover with black woman and white man embracing, lavender in background

a nutshell: through the lens of a passionate love story between a black woman and an Italian man, Coakley Thompson reflects on race relations in New York City at the very end of the 1980s

a line: “Damn it, what is it with us and them?”

an image: at one point, the characters discuss an interview with mayoral candidate Dinkins, commenting that he talks about the City as his beautiful mosaic, how all the colours make it beautiful, not about that ‘assimilationist melting pot shit’

a thought: it was interesting to read a romance – a genre I’ve not read for many years – and I learned a lot about a corner of NYC society which I had known little about through the author’s concerted contextualisation of this relationship

a fact: Coakley Thompson was driven to write this book following the murder of a 16-year-old black child in Brooklyn on 23 August, 1989 – here’s an article about it in the NYT

want to read Back to Life? visit here

Bahrain’s Uprising ed. by Ala’a Shehabi and Marc Owen Jones

Bahrain Uprising book against yellow wall - cover shows Pearl Roundabout

note – as this project is about reading writing by women, this review focuses on the chapter ‘Shifting contours of activism and possibilities for justice in Bahrain‘ by Ala’a Shehabi and Luke G.G. Bhatia; Shehabi is a Bahraini writer and researcher who co-founded Bahrain Watch, an NGO that advocates for accountability and social justice in Bahrain

a nutshell: this powerful chapter shares valuable insights into Bahrain’s ‘advocacy revolution’, the topography of opposition actors, and the emerging possibilities for the fight for human rights and, crucially, self-determination

a line: “the sense of self-emancipation experienced in the euphoria of mass protests can be a life-changing personal transformation”

an image: nicknamed ‘the Butcher of Bahrain‘, British officer Ian Henderson makes a brief appearance in this chapter – a figure I learned of (with horror) during my time at the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy

a thought: once again, like so often happens in this project, I was ashamed of my homeland – the UK has consistently enabled the regime’s increasingly ‘acceptable’ mode of repression, for instance, as mentioned here, advising on improved discourse, better surveillance technology, fewer physical marks following torture, and fewer journalists covering developments

a fact: the authors share a bleak statistic from Eric Posner’s ‘The case against human rights‘ – 150 out of 193 countries continue to engage in torture and the number of authoritarian countries has risen

want to read Bahrain’s Uprising? 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

That Other Me by Maha Gargash

book cover with eye watching, next to cat on lap

a nutshell: set in ’90s Dubai and Cairo, this gripping novel follows two young women as they try to lead their own lives – in the shadow of an extremely authoritarian patriarch

a line: “They call us weak, but how can that be when we are able to bear so much.”

an image: I particularly liked the image of thoughts clambering over one another in Majed’s head like tiny red ants scurrying, seeking to build something out of chaos – the pain inflicted by red ants felt like exactly the right image for this abusive man’s mindset

a thought: the characters’ Khaleeji identity was an ongoing focus, with the author noting it was evident in the way that Mariam’s shayla was styled, in the herbs used to stuff baby goats for a special meal, and so on

a fact: as a documentary maker, Gargash’s research & scriptwriting delved into traditional Arab societies which fed into into her novels

want to read That Other Me? 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

Stories from the Gambia by Sally Sadie Singhateh

a nutshell: with titles such as ‘Evil Begets Punishment’ & ‘It Does Not Pay to Be Greedy’, these three short stories for children come with clear moral intentions, but also captivating illustrations and glimpses into Gambian culture

a line: “But readers, no matter how long something takes, it always comes to an end” (a reasurring line given our current lockdown)

an image: a black cobra starts to talk to a young woman, Morai, and turns out to be the world’s most powerful (and evil) sorcerer Baiankaya

a thought: though I wasn’t entirely onboard with the way in which women are depicted in these stories, I’d be keen to read Singhateh’s novella The Sun Will Soon Shine about an ambitious & resilient woman

a fact: born in 1977, Singhateh also writes poetry

want to read Stories from the Gambia? visit here

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

kindle edition of book with cat next to it

a nutshell: drawing on her own experiences, poet & short story writer Thammavongsa’s debut collection explores moments of unease or disjunction for Laotian immigrants across 14 stories

a line: “I know now what I couldn’t have known then––she wouldn’t just be gone, she’d stay gone.” (‘Edge of the World’)

an image: I liked how, despite living in the same apartment block, the two girls in ‘A Far Distant Thing’ would chat on the phone each evening to describe the details of their day – practising for their (aspiring) writing careers

a thought: the pressures & injustices involved in making a living are a recurring focus, and ‘Picking Worms’ is a particularly devastating instance of when doors are open for mediocre white people and closed for talented Lao people

a fact: born in the (Lao) Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand in 1978, Thammavongsa and her parents were sponsored by a family in Canada when she was one year old

want to read How to Pronounce Knife? visit here

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis

a nutshell: to me, this was an incredibly profound novel about love in various forms – romantic love, love between friends, love of place, familial love – and a fascinating insight into the Uruguyan dictatorship of the 20th century

a line: “the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now––all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe”

an image: I was in tears at the final conversation between Flaca and her father, and even read it aloud hours later to my boyfriend; I won’t recall it here in case I ruin it for other readers, but I found his words deeply moving

a thought: I finished this book over three weeks ago but can’t bring myself to remove it from my bedside table – there were many lines that I’m still thinking about, including Malena’s heated remark that you do not owe your parents your life

a fact: the title comes from a word for singer in Spanish but, as de Robertis shares in this interview, there’s another word, cantante, which women under the dictatorship in the Uruguayan era used as code for lesbians – the author found a resonance in how it suggests a woman will claim her life, or voice, on her own terms

want to read Cantoras? visit here

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

a nutshell: in this memoir of boarding school, Mkhonza takes the reader through her daily life as an earnest, though sometimes mischievous, pupil in what was then called Swaziland (now Eswatini)

a line: “What we needed was an education for a newly independent nation, one that would allow us to create our own worlds”

an image: the final scene ends the novel on an earnestly optimistic note, describing the bus ride out of school into the countryside – the mountains’ beauty, blue sky, white clouds

a thought: Mkhonza reflects often on freedom, the different ways in which we are free as children and as adults, and how we long for the other version at various points in our lives

a fact: an outspoken activist for women’s rights under her country’s monarchy, Mkhonza’s refusal to stop criticising the government’s repressive policies resulted in threats, assaults & hospitalization – she eventually left for the United States

want to read Weeding the Flowerbeds? visit here