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

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

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

The Gravedigger’s Son by Teresa Colom (tr. Mara Faye Lethem)

a nutshell: with one of the most unique & memorable frameworks I’ve encountered in my project, this story explores an extraordinary childhood set among tombstones

a line: “Death had been tempted by the idea of being a mother for centuries”

an image: my favourite moment was the one in which, as if harvesting an onion, the astonished gravedigger pulled something entirely unexpected out of a grave (no spoilers here!)

a thought: I was amused by the way in which Colom colourfully details the assumptions made by local characters about the child’s origins, each figuring that he had come from another without ever making efforts to find out the truth

a fact: born in Andorra in 1973, Colom writes poetry as well as prose – excerpts are available to read here

The Gravedigger’s Son is not yet in publication – watch this space!

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

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

Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel

a nutshell: through the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi, Figiel tells the fascinating story of a teenage girl, Alofa, trying to make sense of the violence & sex she encounters in society

a line: “‘I’ is always ‘we,’ is a part of the ‘aiga [family]… a part of Samoa’ [also, read the book to discover just how extraordinary the first line is]

an image: I loved the moment when the narrator shared how she imagined a daffodil was a dancer that lives in the sky during their school recitals of Wordsworth’s poetry

a thought: among the book’s vignettes is a scene in which an incomer mocks Shirley Girl, who is fa’afafine (someone who dressed as a girl), following which the locals ignore her and her Samoan rugby player partner breaks up with her – I learned more about fa’afafine in Samoan culture here

a fact: this was the first ever novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States – it is striking that Figiel considers herself first & foremost a performance poet

want to read Where We Once Belonged? visit here