Trans by Juliet Jacques

cover of Trans, featuring illustration of Juliet

a nutshell: interweaving the personal with the political, this nuanced & intimate memoir records Juliet’s navigation of her gender journey through her 20s (looping in the arts, football, the internet, & more)

a line: “what if we’re not trapped in the wrong body but trapped in the wrong society?”

an image: one of many beautiful moments is when Juliet describes a play’s parting message that the more somebody resembles what they’ve dreamed of being, the more authentic they are

a thought: I can’t imagine the weight of frustration that Juliet must have felt at the inordinate day-to-day life admin that came with her decision to live freely as a woman, e.g. the local supermarket’s demand that she supply a letter from the GP & two utility bills before they’d replace her loyalty card (which had £2.40 on it)

a fact: the national media, from The Guardian to The Sun, comes across extremely poorly in this book – whether it’s publishing the hateful bile of transphobic feminists or outing individuals in traumatic splashes, the extent to which they’ve let trans people down over the years is woeful

want to read Trans? visit here

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

a nutshell: set in a politically volatile Sri Lanka, this passionate debut follows two women struggling for independence against a backdrop of class & prejudice

a line: “And I am grateful, still, despite all of it, that I had one year in which I got to be a woman. Not a daughter, not a wife, not a mother”

an image: the response and spiralling of events when Latha, a servant girl, asks for a pair of sandals from her employer is heart-breaking

a thought: from being fairly disengaged at the beginning, the characters’ hazy fates & connections soon took hold of me – this is a slow burner, but worth it by the end

a fact: the author holds a graduate degree in labour studies, researching female migrant labor in Kuwait, UAE & Saudi Arabia – unpaid child labour is a major theme throughout this novel

want to read A Disobedient Girl? visit here

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights Under Siege by Amira Hass (tr. Maxine Nunn)

drinking the sea at gaza book on blue blanket

a nutshell: an Israeli reporter reflects on what she saw and heard while living in Gaza, from moments of abject grief to resilient humour

a line: at one point Hass describes leaving her friends’ house in Khan Yunis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip, where her friends had no running water during the day and only a limited supply of salty water at other times; she reaches the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim and drinks from a restroom tap – “Sweet and refreshing, the free-flowing water still had an aftertaste, the bitter flavor – I couldn’t help but imagine – of apartheid”

an image: Hass describes mangled heaps of rubble (homes demolished as a ‘deterrent’) as bearing witness to the ravaged lives of Gaza’s people like the rings of a tree trunk marking the passage of time

a thought: the chapter about the agony of obtaining exit permits for families suffering with ill-health is harrowing to read, particularly the sections on injured/unwell children in need of treatment

a fact: Hass’s desire to live in Gaza stemmed from the dread of being a bystander – a legacy of her mother’s memory of some German women looking with indifferent curiosity as she was herded from a cattle car to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1944; to Hass, Gaza embodies the central contradiction of the State of Israel, that is, democracy for some, dispossession for others

want to read Drinking the Sea at Gaza? visit here

Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Melanie Mauthner)

a nutshell: set in 1970s Rwanda, an elite Catholic boarding school for girls becomes a microcosm for racial tensions

a line: “‘As far as I’m concerned, she’s neither Hutu nor Tutsi, she’s my mother.’ ‘Maybe one day, there’ll be a Rwanda with neither Hutu nor Tutsi.'”

an image: having just learned the fate of her Tutsi friend, a schoolgirl silently struggles to hold back tears and blot out the horrific images assailing her

a thought: despite its eventual tilt into brutality, overall this novel did not feel like a difficult read – incredibly well written & paced, it easily carried me away into the world of the lycée

a fact: by the time of the 1994 genocide, Mukasonga had settled in France after fleeing to Burundi – she later learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred

bonus fact: a film based on the book is being released soon

want to read Our Lady of the Nile? visit here

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

The House at Sugar Beach book next to plant

a nutshell: this memoir covers some distance – from a wealthy childhood among Liberia’s ‘Congo’ class to a (post-coup) adolescence in the US, it’s an unflinching reflection on destructive divisions within societies and families

a line: “‘What makes us not refugees?’ ‘Because we paid for our own plane tickets.”

an image: Cooper recalls her classmates trying to make sense of soldiers’ extreme violence against their families during the coup d’état, with the kids themselves having been beaten and violated

a thought: ahead of describing the mass executions, persecutions & humiliations that came with Doe’s military coup in 1980, Cooper makes many observations on the inequality & injustice of society before the coup as well – she doesn’t mask the fact that her elite class ignores the immense poverty of the ‘native Liberians’ who were colonised when American black freemen (one of who was her direct ancestor) founded Liberia

a fact: Liberia was the first African republic to proclaim its independence (in 1847, from the US) and is Africa’s first & oldest modern republic

 

want to read The House at Sugar Beach? visit here

The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi (tr. Robert Elsie & Janice Mathie-Heck)

a nutshell: alternating between the hilarious and the harrowing, a girl shares fragments of what it was to grow up in Albania’s crumbling communist regime

a line: “He wasn’t a political prisoner, though – just a common criminal – and so posed no danger to society”

an image: the girl’s recollection of discovering mortality, realising with devastation that her mother was vulnerable – just flesh & blood, strikes a tender note in an otherwise fairly loveless landscape

a thought: many disturbing scenes are conveyed here via a child’s-eye-view, but acutely unnerving for me was the youthful acceptance of adults’ sexualisation of kids

a fact: the girl’s family repeatedly refer to her as Mata Hari, who I hadn’t previously heard of – a Dutch dancer convicted of spying for Germany during WWI

 

want to read The Country Where No One Ever Dies? visit here

Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya (co-written with Derrick O’Keefe)

Malalai Joya speaking in Finland

a nutshell: this is the extraordinary story of Malalai Joya, a lifelong women’s rights activist and former politician in her native Afghanistan, whose public denunciation of warlords led to several assassination attempts and suspension from parliament

a line: “By necessity, after decades of brutality, we are our sisters’ keepers”

an image: Joya portrays Afghanistan as a bird with one clipped wing – women – thus it cannot take off until half its people are free; she goes on to clarify that this isn’t achievable through overseas donations or enforceable at gunpoint, and she condemns the use of ‘women’s rights’ as a justification for US occupation

a thought: once again, I was left ashamed of my heritage – Joya writes of how Britain’s resentment at the loss of a colony (post-1919) and fear of a modern, independent country near India saw the British sow rebellion against Afghanistan’s progressive King Amanullah Khan and his reforms (incl. advancing women’s rights and compulsory education for all), culminating in his exile – an overthrow that is considered a disaster in Afghanistan’s history

a fact: this was the first time I heard of the ‘Jihad Schoolbook Scandal‘ – the US government’s $50-million publication of textbooks promoting a militaristic agenda to children in Societ-occupied Afghanistan in an apparent attempt to fuel a jihad against the Russians

 

want to read Raising My Voice? visit here

“I never had this idea of a nation”: thinking global with Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days book by Jenny Erpenbeck against a brick wall

Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”

Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck
Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck in Melbourne

Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”

It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”

As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”

“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”

At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.

Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.

“I know the feeling of being afraid”

Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”

So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”

And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.


Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here