Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

yellow book against brick wall

a nutshell: in this moving autobiography Kassindja records how she fled Togo aged 17 ahead of kakia (female genital mutilation) and a forced marriage, ending up in the US where she spent a horrifying 16 months in detention

a line: “I’d been lost, misplaced, like luggage gone astray”

an image: Kassindja’s memories of prison guards mistreating detainees often evoked shocking scenes, particularly how she was ostracised under entirely false suspicion of TB

a thought: among the most poignant moments in this book, for me, were Kassindja’s reunions with other women detained while seeking asylum – her story is full of powerful friendships and unconditional love often in less likely corners, for instance the commitment of her cousin Rahuf whom she hadn’t seen since childhood

a fact: 97% of detained immigrants are people of colour even though 5 of the the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian – it isn’t that white-skinned illegal immigrants don’t come to the US, it’s that they don’t get put in detention

want to read Do They Hear You When You Cry? visit here

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

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 Dancer from Khiva by Bibish (tr. Andrew Bromfield)

cover on kindle (back of plaited hair) with fern in background

a nutshell: written while Bibish was a street vendor in a province of Moscow, this unique & spirited memoir records an Uzbek woman’s determination to live independently despite all odds

a line: “The state is like an X-ray machine, it looks right through me”

an image: with the moon in Central Asia shining brightly at night, Bibish recalls how she used to read a wide range of books while everyone slept (despite her mother’s scolding)

a thought: the author vividly documents her struggles to earn enough money to provide food for her sons, such as her raw despair at being unable to buy bread to ease their hunger as late as 10pm – this evoked horrible parallels with the current situation in my homeland, the UK, where parliamentarians refused to allow meals to be given to children needing food over the upcoming holidays during the pandemic

a fact: Bibish shared many fascinating details about her childhood in a kishlak, and particularly moving was her account of the forced labour & production quota system that pervaded Uzbekistan’s cotton fields – when I googled this I was horrified to learn from HRW that it continues to this day

want to read The Dancer from Khiva? visit here

Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett

a nutshell: set in Kiribati, this beautiful children’s book follows a young girl’s resilient attempts to protect her home from the rising sea

a line: “Kairo, if you help me build my wall, I can help you build your wall”

an image: I particularly loved the page (below) where Teaote happily dreams of rippling rainbow fish, coconut trees stretching up to the clouds, and the mango-coloured sun

a thought: to me this was a moving insight into what it’s like for children on the frontlines of the climate crisis, all the more so given that the book is based on the true story of Marita’s mother Teaote

a fact: Davies closes the book with a note about Kiribati – home to 100,000 indigenous i-Kiribati people and sitting halfway between Australia & Hawaii, this small Pacific nation is predicted to disappear underwater in 50 years

want to read Teaote and the Wall? 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

Fiery Curses by Noura Mohammad Faraj (tr. William M Hutchins)

a nutshell: in this title story from Qatari writer Faraj’s collection, a woman revisits an inflammatory book from childhood which transforms her perspective

a line: “the tongues of emirs, poets, and muezzins were indistinguishable from those of barflies”

an image: embedded in the narrator’s mind is an image of herself in cartoon form being chased by her father, who pelts her with hot embers as she flees

a thought: I tried to look up the book’s author, Abu al-Fadl al-Tashti, but couldn’t find anything – I’d be curious to know the significance (if any!) of this name

a fact: Faraj is an Assistant Professor at the Arabic Language Dept at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and has published two academic books and one short story collection (The Totem)

want to read Fiery Curses? 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

How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta

a nutshell: this moving memoir follows Uwiringiyimana’s journey from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the Gatumba massacre, to the US where she resettled with her family and began to confront her trauma

a line: “We must not fall prey to the kind of thinking that separates us”

an image: Uwiringiyimana vividly recalls the sense of displacement in the family’s arrival in the US, for instance how her father says he feels like the cold wind is electrocuting him

a thought: I was astonished to learn the family did not receive any counselling during their resettlement, which seems like an extreme oversight in the program – I was very moved by Uwiringiyimana’s frank account of her mental health in the years following the massacre

a fact: Uwiringiyimana’s activism grew out of a photo exhibition she created with her brother, Alex, which led to an invitation to speak at Women in the World – here‘s part of that interview she did with Charlie Rose

want to read How Dare the Sun Rise? visit here