As Good as Gold by Kathryn Bertine

a nutshell: this memoir follows an athlete’s attempt to make the Olympics via the beautiful dual-island nation of St Kitts and Nevis

a line: “doable, with its amazing ability to promise nothing and everything all at once, still left me in charge, I hung onto that word fiercely, to its calm positivity, its quiet hope, and its spunky little go-getter syllables”

an image: when recalling her first trip to St Kitts and Nevis, Bertine recounts Christopher Columbus’ error in believing the clouds above Nevis’s highest peak were a snowcapped mountain, hence the name from the Spanish ‘nieves’ (‘snows’)

a thought: I was moved by Bertine’s honesty about leaving her ex-fiance, an alcoholic, and her memories of how she gathered what was left of her confidence, courage & energy after realising she couldn’t rewire another person’s ‘happy button’ – I was particularly interested in her reflection about the danger of thinking if physical pain was something she could endure then why not pain of the emotional variety?

a fact: at one point, Bertine visits my home city of Melbourne for the Bloody Big Swim, an 11.3km route through the open sea, which I know *for a fact* that I wouldn’t stand a chance at!

want to read As Good as Gold? visit here

Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya

Singing away the hunger - inside cover with photo of Mpho

a nutshell: these are stories from the extraordinary life of Lesotho elder and matriarch Nthunya, stretching from her birth in 1930 to the conversations that formed this book in the late 1990s

a line: “Maybe if there is one day enough for the hunger to stop, we can stop being so jealous of one another. If the jealousy is no more, we can begin to have dreams for one another. We can build something new”

an image: I liked how chapter 11 took its title from a motto in Lesotho – khotso, pula, nala, that is, peace, rain, prosperity

a thought: as so often throughout this project, I had reason to feel ashamed of my heritage – before independence, every man (no matter how poor) had to pay tax to the British or he was imprisoned; Nthunya’s family was so pleased when they no longer had to pay that they named a child born in the year of independence ‘Muso’, meaning Government

a fact: through her job as a domestic worker Nthunya became friends with American writer Kendall while she was studying on a Fulbright scholarship, and it was Kendall’s idea to document Nthunya’s life – this autobiography is a collaboration between the pair

want to read Singing Away the Hunger? visit here

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 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

Journal of a Superfluous Woman by I. R. King

red cover with mandorla, plant in background

a nutshell: prompted by a cancer diagnosis, these introspective essays embody the author’s attempt (‘essai’) to probe the life she has led over four decades

a line: “the Caribbean experience is one of shared kinship amongst a people of varied appearances, but when we laugh, it is with one laughter”

an image: as seen in the image above, the cover features a mandorla (Latin for almond) – an ancient symbol of wholeness, in which the overlapping signifies the healing of the split; this symbol is of importance to King’s self-examination

a thought: King reflects heavily on her lifelong difficulties in knowing what she wants, commenting often on how many people seemed to stay on the heels of a dream that was not ours – the American dream, whether American or not

a fact: born in Curacao, King grew up in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – at one point she mentions how US residents regard her island as a source of domestic help

want to read Journal of a Superfluous Woman? visit here

Dalai Lama, My Son by Diki Tsering (ed. Khedroob Thondup)

a nutshell: this fascinating memoir of the 14th Dalai Lama’s mother was compiled by her grandson, who took up the mantle of his late sister Yangzom Doma’s work in recording their grandmother’s life history – born in 1901 to a peasant family, Tsering reminisced orally in Tibetan while her granddaughter wrote and translated her words into English

a line: “once I began to tell myself I was Diki Tsering, the name that was given to me on my wedding day and means ‘ocean of luck’, a kind of rebirth kindled all the forces of determination within me. I was no longer afraid, and I willingly challenged fate, determined not to be submerged by the tide”

an image: Tsering’s portrayals of the kyirong (ghost) that caused havoc in households across Tibet were unwaveringly spooky, from episodes of upturning sacks of peas to incidents of killing horses

a thought: to me, this book’s strongest elements were the intricate passages about traditional Tibetan customs – particularly around weddings, though unsurprisingly the status of women’s rights were abysmal in the early 20th century and Tsering describes toiling up to 21 hours a day for her in-laws’ household

a fact: I was shocked to read the author’s note that Tsering gave birth to 16 children yet only seven of them survived beyond infancy – at one point she notes that she always controlled herself when her children died since tears were “hail on a dead child’s face”

want to read Dalai Lama, My Son? visit here

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

a nutshell: in this memoir of boarding school, Mkhonza takes the reader through her daily life as an earnest, though sometimes mischievous, pupil in what was then called Swaziland (now Eswatini)

a line: “What we needed was an education for a newly independent nation, one that would allow us to create our own worlds”

an image: the final scene ends the novel on an earnestly optimistic note, describing the bus ride out of school into the countryside – the mountains’ beauty, blue sky, white clouds

a thought: Mkhonza reflects often on freedom, the different ways in which we are free as children and as adults, and how we long for the other version at various points in our lives

a fact: an outspoken activist for women’s rights under her country’s monarchy, Mkhonza’s refusal to stop criticising the government’s repressive policies resulted in threats, assaults & hospitalization – she eventually left for the United States

want to read Weeding the Flowerbeds? 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

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

a nutshell: from Somalia to the US via Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Netherlands, this polarising public figure’s memoir follows her journey through an unimaginably turbulent childhood into an adulthood that pivots on her vocal disavowal of her former religion, Islam

a line: “Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas.”

an image: while describing the period of her childhood spent in Mecca, the writer conjures up a strikingly vivid contrast between what she sees as the cool, beautiful, kindly space within the Grand Mosque and the intensely hot, filthy, cruel space outside the mosque’s doors

a thought: I was intrigued by Ali’s fairly understated comment on p.94 that novels were what saved her from submission – reading fiction gave her glimpses of another world, which ultimately sparked the sense of rebellion that changed her life, but once she had landed in the other world she refers only to non-fiction

a fact: Ali and I occupy very opposite ends of the political spectrum – and while I do try to read widely, which necessarily includes views I disagree with, my interest in the book waned as it went on; I felt like it became less a reflection on Ali’s life story and more an engine for promoting her hostility towards Islam

want to read Infidel? visit here

My Fathers’ Daughter by Hannah Pool

My father's daughter book with author on front and my cat in the background

a nutshell: adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea by white parents in 1974, Pool grew up in the UK under the assumption that she has no birth family – that is, until she receives a letter from a brother, leading her on a journey to reunite with them ten years later

a line: “It’s tattooed on your psyche: love is temporary”

an image: for me the most vividly interesting passages in the book were where Pool describes her visits to the family’s villages – the landscape, buildings, habits, festivities

a thought: in order to avoid spoilers, all I’ll say about p.115 is that it moved me to tears and I can’t imagine how Pool felt in that moment

a fact: while I usually share something I learned here, instead I want to share a few things I’d like to know – what was the response to this memoir in Eritrea? did the criticism of the government in Pool’s epilogue trigger any repercussions for her family? has she been back to Eritrea in the 15 years since the book’s publication?

want to read My Fathers’ Daughter? visit here