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

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

Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country through Songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women

Song Spirals book in front of monstera plant, with cover image by Gaymala Yunupinu

a nutshell: borne of a decade-long collaboration between five Yolŋu women and three non-Aboriginal women, this profound, intimate, beautiful book is an invitation to learn about milkarri – songspirals cried and keened by women

a line: “It is grief. It is pain. It is joy, love, healing. | It is songspirals.”

an image: for this particular book it’s a near-impossible task to choose just a single image; beauty suffuses every page, particularly as the women share how they walk in kinship with the land, noticing the birds, the dew, the warming sun, the cycles . . .

a thought: with their thousands of generations of knowledge, the women emphasise the need to respect wisdom and of how a wondrous mind learns so much more than a mind that is sick & narrow – living our responsibilities means opening ourselves up to being surprised & transformed and trying to do things that make a positive difference

a fact: Gay’wu Group of Women continually opened my eyes and broadened my understanding of their culture, but crucially they reminded me how much I (we) don’t know – their words are for reflection with regard to our own experiences

want to read Songspirals? visit here

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

TW – this review contains references to sexual assault

a nutshell: a short, narrative nonfiction book bearing witness to the suffering of undocumented children navigating the US immigration system, drawing on Luiselli’s work as a volunteer court translator in New York

a line: “It is perhaps not the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born”

an image: the writer describes seeing child migrants enter the court system as like being stood with hands and feet tied, powerless, watching kids try to cross a busy avenue with cars speeding by

a thought: rather than writing off these children as “illegals” or “aliens” we should regard them as refugees of a hemispheric war (in which the US has long been complicit), Luiselli argues, all of whom have the right to asylum

a fact: the writer notes the horrifying reality that 80% of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the journey


want to read Tell Me How It Ends? visit here

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

a nutshell: set in postwar Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, this is a vast & raw novel that delves into grief, loss, love – and the complex psychological struggles that often haunt survivors of civil war

a line“I fall down, I get up”

an image: looking up at a commercial airliner passes overhead from one country to another, Kai likens himself to a man drowning as a ship sails by; he wonders at the passengers’ ignorance of the self-devouring nation below while they drink wine and summon the cabin crew

a thought: though I found the first fifty or so pages languid/disengaging, The Memory of Love then grew on me immensely, yet I never shook off my dislike for the main characters Elias & Adrian (the latter is a Brit who’s loath to consider the idea that he’s neither wanted nor needed in Sierra Leone)

a fact: many of the novel’s characters are suffering from various conditions of post traumatic stress; in particular the book taught me about dissociative fugue – a disorder often precipitated by trauma, characterised by reversible amnesia for memories, personality, identity


want to read The Memory of Love? visit here

Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (tr. Anna Halager)

a nutshell: a punchy, fast-paced, almost-stream-of-consciousness novella charting the major realisations & life decisions of five queer characters in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk

a line“The island is swollen. The island is rotten. The island has taken my beloved from me.”

an image: the ongoing prison metaphor (at least, I think it’s a metaphor…) in Inuk’s chapter threw me somewhat but does vividly evoke the claustrophobia that has engulfed him so far in his life

a thought: I read this book within a few hours and found it a stressful read what with the endless binges & hangovers / childhood traumas / emotional crises – but it’s certainly a bold debut from Korneliussen

a fact: the author first wrote the book in Greenlandic (published as HOMO Sapienne) aged 24, before translating it herself into Danish and presumably then into English (?) – I liked how she gives a glossary at the back to explain various Greenlandic words left within the English translation, e.g. ‘inuugit’ meaning ‘live your life’


want to read Crimson? visit here

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

a nutshell: this compelling memoir relives a child’s horrendous struggle for survival under the Khmer Rouge regime

a line“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it”

an image: in the later chapters Ung repeatedly expresses immense self-hatred and guilt for the fact that, as a very young child, she once secretly took a handful of rice from the family stockpile during one of their times of extreme starvation and thus deprived her baby sister of a few grains; the way in which this memory plagues her is excruciatingly sad

a thought: the author’s introductory note pays tribute to the two million Cambodians – a quarter of the country’s population – who were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge through execution, starvation, disease and forced labour from 1975-9; she adds, “If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too”

a fact: this memoir has been adapted into a film (produced and directed by Angelina Jolie), which premiered in 2017 in Siem Reap, Cambodia


want to read First They Killed My Father? visit here

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva (tr. Carol Apollonio)

a nutshell: set in a Dagestani village, this incisive novel explores conflicts between tradition and modernisation through the lens of tussling approaches to marriage – it’s a love story with more twists & turns than most

a line“Without mutations though,” I interrupted, “there is no evolution.” Total silence.

an image: just before our narrator Patya interrupts (above), we’re subjected to the Wahhabi fundamentalist Timur’s sermon on how Western vice causes mutations that lead people astray – “especially girls, with their weaker minds”

a thought: Sufism is an essential subtext of Bride and Groom, with the plot resembling the path of a Sufi to the Absolute and interweaving various Sufi symbols (wine, the sea, a dot); one must seek complete knowledge of being and ultimately merge with God

a fact: Ganieva published her first fictional work (Salam, Dalgat!) under a male pseudonym, revealing her identity at the 2009 awards ceremony of the prestigious Debut Prize which she won


want to read Bride and Groom? visit here

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