The Palauan Perspectives by Hermana Ramarui

Extract from 'Being a Palauan' against sea backdrop

a nutshell: written by a Palauan poet & educator, this extraordinary collection of poetry explores identity, freedom and colonialism

a line: “Our folly is that | We try to recreate | By trying to duplicate | The impractical past | Whose songs are | Out of tune” (‘Palauan Culture’)

an image: in Ramarui’s pages-long & astonishing poem ‘Freedom’, she suggests the US’s colonial approach to Micronesia was like a fishing expedition and asks the coloniser to throw its golden hooks away

a thought: I was intrigued by the poet’s idea of Palauan culture as a state of being – a centre in itself, hanging onto nothing – and her observation that people cease to be Palauan as soon as they fear new learning (‘Being a Palauan’)

a fact: Ramarui worked for over twenty years in Palau’s Ministry of Education and made huge contributions to preserving Palauan language & culture; she later began working on a children’s reading series and colouring book series

want to read The Palauan Perspectives? visit here

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

a nutshell: set in 1981, this heartbreakingly evocative novel follows a young woman as she explores her memories while attempting to flee the violence of her homeland, Jamaica

a line: “Jamaica was too young to die”

an image: a rural sign reading ‘FRESH POETRY & EGGS’ is left to interpretation – spelling or reality?

a thought: I identified strongly with the main character, Jean, particuarly in how she reads constantly – pressing her ear close to the world of fictional characters, as Cezair-Thompson describes it, like a vagrant at a windowpane

a fact: towards the end of the novel, Jean realises she has always believed in egun iponri – ancestors – which the author explains more in this insightful interview

want to read The True History of Paradise? visit here

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 >>>

Screenshot 2020-04-26 at 12.18.14

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

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

a nutshell: bringing to light the life of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, this novella is set between Jamaica and Dominica in the 1830s

a line: “You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too.”

an image: I found Antoinette’s story of waking as a child to see two huge rats then falling back asleep in the moonlight of a full moon fantastically eerie; her da (nurse) was furious the next morning and as a reader it felt strangely moving when, years later, Antoinette asks her husband if he too believes she has slept too long in the moonlight

a thought: I enjoyed reading Francis Wyndham’s introduction to the first edition of  this 1966 novella and am curious about how Wyndham’s evident enthusiasm for Rhys’ work sensationally ‘resurrected’ the writer, who was presumed dead when she vanished for 20 years after Good Morning, Midnight (1939) was unsuccessful

a fact: born in Dominica’s capital (Roseau) in 1890 to a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother, Rhys spent her childhood there before moving to England where she spent the First World War – she wrote many books before coming to this one, and her letters show that she was obsessed by Brontë’s novel and haunted by the need to write about the first Mrs Rochester

want to read Wide Sargasso Sea? visit here

Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge

cover with portait of young girl on front

a nutshell: written from the perspective of Tee, whose mother dies in childbirth & whose father emigrates to England, this short novel explores an upbringing suspended between the worlds of two aunts – aunt Tantie’s informal & exuberant world and Aunt Beatrice’s pretentious & ‘refined’ world

a line: “Books transported you always into Reality and Rightness, which were to be found Abroad” (underlining the oppressively ‘colonial’ nature of education)

an image: the vividly atmospheric descriptions of food & music at Tantie’s conjure such a warmth and richness that contrasts starkly with the coldness of Aunt Beatrice’s

a thought: Tee’s feeling of unnaturalness/alienation at Aunt Beatrice’s is conveyed powerfully in the two scenes in which she observes the sea “offensively” rolling in & out with “no respect” for anything, as if all is right in the world

a fact: published in 1970, when Hodge was in her mid-20s, this novel’s title refers to a Caribbean oral tradition whereby at the start/end of a story the storyteller calls “crick?” and the audience responds “crack”

want to read Crick Crack Monkey? visit here

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)

The Cost of Sugar book with Sarith and Minimini on front cover under big leaf

a nutshell: set in the 18th century, this utterly absorbing novel weaves together stories of love and cruelty during the period of slavery in Suriname – a raw exposé of life under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch

a line: “Five cents for a pound of sugar, and how many hands, arms, legs and human lives were sacrificed for this!”

an image: many parts of this book were heart-wrenching – one of these moments was the scene in which a child throws himself between his hateful mother and his beloved slave to protect the latter, reflecting how family dynamics were twisted in these oppressive households

a thought: I haven’t been so addicted to a book in a long time – I was reading it at breakfast, on my lunchbreak, right after work – I even had to be comforted by a colleague when I was visibly upset by one plot twist; McLeod is an absolutely masterful writer

a fact: the book was made into a major motion picture, framed differently from the book but still potentially worth a watch!

want to read The Cost of Sugar? 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

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King book – woman's silhouette on colourful battlefield

a nutshell: this is a powerful, brutal story of what it is to be a woman at war – both within a household & within a country – set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia

a line“These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.”

an image: an Italian-Jewish soldier-photographer tries to looks behind an Ethiopian prisoner’s face into her mind and sees nothing besides sturdy, thick thoughts of survival & routine, revealing the short-sighted lens of the invaders

a thought: the visceral, ongoing effect that a father’s gentle letter has on the photographer (and by turn on his superior) is a moving glimpse into how toxic masculinity is preventable, not inevitable; men’s violence against women is an incessant theme in the novel – and here I should note that the book contains many graphic descriptions of sexual assault

a fact: the author put together a brilliant article listing books that influenced her own novel; the list features several authors I’ve read as part of this project – Svetlana Alexievich, Aminatta Forna, Jenny Erpenbeck – a reminder of the potency that lies within women’s perspectives on traditionally ‘unwomanly’ fields

want to read The Shadow King? visit here

The Black Lake by Hella Haasse (tr. Ina Rilke)

the black lake cover with dark butterflies symmetrical and against a backdrop of leaves

a nutshell: published in 1948, The Black Lake (or Oeroeg) was a staple novel for generations of Dutch schoolchildren – it’s the story of a doomed friendship between the son of a Dutch plantation owner and the son of an Indonesian servant

a line: “Here for the first time we were at a point where we each faced the other in all truthfulness. He levelled his gun”

an image: the scene in which the narrator blurts out his fraught questions around the idea of Oeroeg being “any less” than himself is one that eloquently summarises the absurdity of seeing difference as quantitative

a thought: there were several moments that moved me deeply in this short novel, but particularly the last few pages – I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I overran my lunch break!

a fact: born in 1918 in Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Haasse is often referred to as having been ‘the Grand Old Lady’ of Dutch literature – and has an asteroid named after her!

want to read The Black Lake? visit here

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Old Drift cover

a nutshell: this 576-page tome follows three Zambian families as their fates entwine over the course of the 20th century into the present day

a line“it was a version of family better than most”

an image: true or not, I enjoyed (and, in fact, retold) Agnes’ beloved anecdote about why tennis players call 0 “love” – a hand-me-down from l’oeuf, the French for egg, since a zero is shaped like an egg

a thought: this epic narrative manages to convey many eternal truths in such a simple way, like the description of history as, in short, the annals of the bully on the playground

a fact: the Old Drift was a colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, where the novel opens

want to read The Old Drift? visit here