Time and the River by Zee Edgell

time and the river book cover with illustration of young girl in front of bushes

a nutshell: following the life of Leah, who was born a slave in late 18th-century Belize, this is a profoundly moving novel exploring oppression in various forms

a line: “By now she knew from experience that one can often seem to be made of several people”

an image: while forced by the British to fight against the Spanish at sea, Will has a flashback to his terrified younger self aboard the slaving ship from Africa as he watched the crew throw sick and dying slaves overboard

a thought: this felt like a very timely story – a vital reminder that abolishing slavery was insufficient; the entire system of white privilege and exploitative capitalism must be deconstructed

a fact: two characters, Will and Sharper, are based on real-life individuals who are named in history books as heroes of the last known Belizean slave revolt in 1820

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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

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In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of Butterflies against blue sky and sea

a nutshell: reaching from 1938 to 1994, this utterly compelling novel reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas‘) – symbols of hope & defiance during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic

a line: “I couldn’t stand the idea of being locked up in any one life”

an image: an extract from Mate’s fictionalised diary describes a current running among the women prisoners as like an invisible needle stitching them together into the glorious, free nation they’re becoming

a thought: there are so so many thoughts I could share here, but suffice to say that this was for me the most moving book I’ve encountered in my project so far and my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it

a fact: after the author’s father was involved in an underground plot cracked by the the Dominican Republic’s notorious Military Intelligence Service, Alvarez’s family fled for New York City in August 1960 – less than four months before the murder of the three Mirabel sisters, who were members of that underground

want to read In the Time of the Butterflies? visit here

PS: as part of my human rights work I was involved in promoting the 16 Days of Activism a few months ago, yet it was only at the very end of the novel that I remembered this annual campaign begins on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – a day that commemorates the legacy of the Mirabal sisters.

Maru by Bessie Head

a nutshell: an orphan of the Sān people (also known as “Bushmen”) is raised by a white wealthy woman then left to fend for herself as a well-educated teacher in a Botswana village, where she encounters racial hatred, oppressive love & genuine friendship

a line: “No. She was not good. She was rich. She kept on throwing things away. I used to feel myself catching them, and that is how I learned.”

an image: the scenes with the two goats, the Queen of Sheba and the Windscreen-Wiper, and their sophistication (and “goat language”) is excellent light relief from the complications of human society

a thought: a lot of the book’s wisdom comes from Dikeledi, a progressive royal, who talks of having grown up surrounded by something she called “sham”, which made people believe they were more important than the normal image of humankind

a fact: the author was born in South Africa in 1937 but took up permanent exile in Botswana & gained citizenship in ’79 after 15 years as a refugee

 

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