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

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

Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke (tr. Liz Waters)

thirty days on kindle with cover as blue sky and single cloud

a nutshell: this layered novel imagines thirty days through the lens of Senegalese painter/decorator Alphonse, who glimpses the ‘interiors’ of his clients’ often chaotic lives in the Belgian countryside (the good and the very ugly)

a line: “And I don’t believe in hell. Not after death, anyhow.”

an image: at one point Alphone recalls his mother saying that everyone he’ll meet is a child, and the nicest people are those who are aware of it

a thought: this book took me an incredibly long time to read as I kept dipping in & out, perhaps because of the sheer quantity of things that happen in it – nonetheless Alphonse was one of the most likeable characters I’ve encountered in a long time

a fact: Verbeke is a Belgian writer who writes in Dutch, and this novel was chosen as the best Dutch-language novel of 2015 by readers of a Dutch newspaper

want to read Thirty Days? visit here

I Still Miss Him by Walije Gondwe

a nutshell: recalling her childhood in 1950s Malawi, the narrator – Kamu – tells the story of her fraught teen romance with a European boy named Charlie

a line: “Unfortunately, love, amour, kutemwa, kupenda – call it what you will – is not that rational”

an image: it has been some time since I read such a quintessentially teenage moment as when Kamu finds herself pondering whether ‘that boy’ had a PhD in being handsome

a thought: this short novel is not all just fleeting lust and angst-ridden teen dramas, it also delves into the racialised society in which Kamu grows up – the young girl’s ongoing struggle with the taboo of associating with white Europeans is made very clear from the earliest pages

a fact: born in 1936, Gondwe was the first Malawian woman novelist to have her work published – in 1999 she founded a charity, Vinjeru Education, to provide educational resources to schools in Malawi’s remote regions

want to read I Still Miss Him? visit here

The Green Eyed Lama by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L Falt

a nutshell: beginning in 1938 and based on a true story, this novel follows a horrifying purge inflicted by Mongolia’s communist government under Soviet orders – intertwined with a complicated love story between a herdswoman and a lama

a line: “Believe me, ideas are far more powerful than guns and trucks”

an image: I was particularly moved by Davaa’s dream-state sequence as he goes to face his death – the green valley, tall meadow flowers, rainbows, his grandson, his daughter, and finally his beloved wife outside a white ger making milk-vodka

a thought: a lingering observation for me was an elderly herdswoman’s remark about the arbitrariness of borders while they were being forced to relocate after the military’s successful attack against the Japanese – the invisible lines demarcating one country from the next had been of no importance to her & her granddaughter until now

a fact: this was the first Mongolian novel to be published in the West, and the author writes that she had dreamt for years of writing the stories of her ancestors – the book ends with many pages listing those who were killed and the characters are in fact referred to by their real names

want to read The Green Eyed Lama? 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

Passion de La Pensée by Salma Khalil Alio

a nutshell: in the writer’s own words, this is a melting pot (un creuset) of diverse poems that embrace romanticism, tenderness & disappointment

a line: “Aux parents rescapés de cet atterrissage | Au fruit de l’arbre généalogique qui naissaient | Des noyaux d’amour mornes qui connaissaient | L’armure fortifiante de la puissance | Celle dont on surnommait valeur de connaissance” [‘Négritude d’Afrique’]*

an image: there are many pastoral scenes across this collection – in ‘Nature, toi ma passion’ the poet portrays herself as isolated in a nest of purity, soaking up the beauty of the landscape and watching innocent wild geese, then as soon as twilight takes her into its embrace, she slips off her shoes

a thought: as this collection was in French I developed a document in which I translated extensive extracts incl. Alio’s fascinating biography & preface – hugely enjoyed working my way through the poems, which metamorphose from short, light-hearted anecdotes (such as forgetting Valentine’s Day!) to longer, more serious verses about her homeland

a fact: Alio is also the founder of the Positive, an association aiming to support Chadian women artists in any medium by promoting their art as a means of economic empowerment – learn more

want to read Passion de la Pensée? visit here

* I have my own personal translation of these lines but am wary of sharing it in case I have misinterpreted the meaning at all – I’m very much an amateur at literary translation! If you read French, I’d love to hear how you translate these lines 🙂

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli (tr. Kristina Cordero)

Blue spine of book with title and author, blank red cover, yellow brick wall in background

a nutshell: subtitled ‘A Memoir of Love and War’, this is a stunningly rich remembrance of an acclaimed Nicaraguan writer’s involvement in the Sandinista Revolution and how she came to age as a passionate feminist in & out of exile

a line: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t believe in the creative powers of the human imagination”

an image: on returning to Managua after a heart-rending medical procedure in NYC, Belli presses her forehead to the plane window and realises the runway is beautifully lit by oil lamps – since recent storms had wreaked havoc, they had relied on these with the hope it wouldn’t rain

a thought: Belli’s account certainly made me reflect on social responsibility & collective joy – esp. as my partner is currently reading Lynne Segal’s Radical Happiness – but I never quite pinpointed whether her primary source of joy is herself or collaboration (sometimes she singles out the former as the key to happiness, other times the latter)

a fact: Belli’s most well-known book, The Inhabited Woman, is a semi-autobiographical novel which raised gender issues for the first time in the Nicaraguan revolutionary narratives, yet she considers herself a poet before all else

want to read The Country Under My Skin? visit here

Tentative by Anna Leader

cat and ebook

a nutshell: set in Paris but sprawling across Central Europe, this teen fiction (written by a Luxembourger teenager) follows a young girl whose heart is pulled in different directions

a line: “Or did you develop a tolerance for sadness, like a drug, and need larger and larger doses to produce the same effect?”

an image: there were many reminders of my adolescence in this novel, with some poignant chapters in which the main character immersed herself in books (& berries) to escape teen turmoil

a thought: it was so refreshing to read a book with a happy ending – I hadn’t realised how much I needed to dip into this unrefined yet enjoyable book

a fact: aged 16 when she wrote this, Leader is the youngest author I’ve read so far for this project – this is her first (semi-autobiographical) novel

want to read Tentative? visit here

Beatriz’s War, co-written by Irim Tolentino

a nutshell: Timor-Leste’s historic first feature film tells an immensely powerful story of one woman’s infatigable courage during the Indonesian occupation – co-written (and acted!) by Irim Tolentino, whose short stories and poems have yet to be translated from Tetun into English…

a line: “When I close my eyes I see only the past, the horrors of those days. Let me become blind to that, to see the world as it could be.”

an image: in one very moving scene, the women of a village gather where Indonesian soldiers killed their husbands, fathers and sons one year after their murder to collect the bones, pay their respects to the dead, and end their mourning; they shed their grief and remove their black garments to reveal vibrant clothes below

a thought: I spoke to Tolentino as part of my work for the International Women’s Development Agency and wanted to share a thought from her, rather than me: “As women of Timor-Leste, we’ve been looking for more chances to explore and express our thoughts and talents. Until now, many of us struggled to keep these things alive. Music, arts, film and poetry have less attention and support in our society although the demand is there.”

a fact: Tolentino told me that she submitted a story about friendship and loss to a writing competition (‘Istoria Timor’, or ‘Story of Timor’) based on diary extracts; she later designed a cover and arranged for printing, but the story was never published – here’s hoping we someday get to read her writing in English

want to watch Beatriz’s War? visit here