The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste

a nutshell: this highly charged, palpable prose is ignited by the sparks thrown off a heady encounter between a preacher, his daughter, a mechanic and his assistant in the wilds of northern Argentina

a line: “But Leni has no lost paradise to revisit. Her childhood was very recent but her memory of it was empty.”

an image: I found the omniscient narrator’s passage about the reverend’s sermons deeply unsettling, with the escalating intrusions of Christ’s tongue, finger, tongue until the climactic disgorging of the slimy black Devil-infused fabric

a thought: through its potency, this story carried me into a world profoundly different to the one I inhabit – immersing me for several hours in belief systems & ways of life so far from my own (a very useful exercise given how much time I spend in a filter bubble)

a fact: according to a 2017 survey, 76% of Argentina’s population is Christian – 66% Roman Catholic, 10% Evangelical Protestant; last year’s failure of the bill to legalise abortion highlighted the enduring power of the church in Argentinian politics

 

want to read The Wind That Lays Waste? visit here

[PS. big thanks to Charco Press for the copy!]

The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail (tr. Max Weiss & Dunya Mikhail)

The Beekeeper of Sinjar

TW: distressing content, including sexual violence

 

a nutshell: this devastatingly vital book records the experiences of Yazidi women who managed to flee abduction and enslavement as sabaya (sex slaves) by Daesh across Iraq and beyond, many of whom escaped with the help of beekeeper Abdullah Sharem & his network

a line: “Friendship was our only hope … ‘Like we promised,’ I reminded her, ‘either we die or we get out of here together.'” – Nadia, a young Yazidi woman whom Daesh stole, auctioned, and repeatedly raped in front of her children, grew close to another female captive and held off the rescue until they could both flee along with their children

an image: for the first time in this project I’ve found it impossible to isolate just one image – there are too many examples of individuals quietly risking everything to save loved ones or strangers alike, casting a glimmer of light against Daesh’s abject cruelty

a thought: Mikhail also documents the broader picture of Daesh’s genocidal persecution of the Yazidi people – the expulsion from their ancestral lands in Northern Iraq, the systematic mass shootings of men, the live burial of elderly, the exploitation of children to build weapons, the brainwashing of boys to make them “martyrs”, the horrifying list goes on…

a fact: an award-winning poet & journalist, Mikhail was born in Baghdad in 1965 and relocated to the US thirty years later after facing censorship & interrogation; in the course of writing this book, she returned to Iraq for a visit to meet Abdullah

 

want to read The Beekeeper of Sinjar? visit here

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva (tr. Carol Apollonio)

a nutshell: set in a Dagestani village, this incisive novel explores conflicts between tradition and modernisation through the lens of tussling approaches to marriage – it’s a love story with more twists & turns than most

a line“Without mutations though,” I interrupted, “there is no evolution.” Total silence.

an image: just before our narrator Patya interrupts (above), we’re subjected to the Wahhabi fundamentalist Timur’s sermon on how Western vice causes mutations that lead people astray – “especially girls, with their weaker minds”

a thought: Sufism is an essential subtext of Bride and Groom, with the plot resembling the path of a Sufi to the Absolute and interweaving various Sufi symbols (wine, the sea, a dot); one must seek complete knowledge of being and ultimately merge with God

a fact: Ganieva published her first fictional work (Salam, Dalgat!) under a male pseudonym, revealing her identity at the 2009 awards ceremony of the prestigious Debut Prize which she won

 

want to read Bride and Groom? visit here

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (tr. Marilyn Booth)

a nutshell: a fragmented but occasionally fascinating insight into Omani culture, zipping back and forth between perspectives from individuals – often women – within a scattered family tree

a line“How liberated a person feels when it’s finally no longer a question of being just an extension or embodiment of someone else’s fancy” (significantly, this is said by a man referring to his father’s diminishing control; women have no such liberation in the narrative)

an image: a father’s resentment and frustration with a baby boy showing autistic traits struck painful blows for me as the sister of someone with autism – at one point the father expresses a desire for the son to fly out of the window like a bird never to return

a thought: it wasn’t until 1970 that Oman outlawed slavery, and the horrifying ramifications of this are felt throughout the novel

a fact: once again I came to understand more of Britain’s role in historical conflicts – Alharthi writes of how, following the 1920 Sib Treaty, Oman was split between the Government of Muscat (with Britain financing the Sultan) and the Imamate, which turned sour after the Sultan signed an agreement for a British firm to do exploratory oil drilling in a desert that lay well within the Imamate’s territories

 

want to read Celestial Bodies? visit here

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (tr. Lawrence Schimel)

a nutshell: this slim novel sees teenage orphan Okomo confront the suffocating rules of Fang culture in rural Equatorial Guinea where, though she’s under pressure to find a husband, her realisation that she’s not into men leads her towards an altogether different community

a line“if a man who is with another man us called a man-woman, what are women called who do the same?”

an image: throughout the book, the forest grows into an increasingly beautiful place full of freedoms, hope & unity

a thought: ‘witchcraft’ is thrown about by the conservative elders as the reason for all manner of misfortunes when in fact the architects of these circumstances are often those in local positions of power – either Fang men or mitangan (missionaries)

a fact: Abosede George’s afterword contributes many insights into the record of past dissident sexualities relating to the discussion around queerness and Africanness (though – for anyone who does read the book – I did disagree with her point that the Indecency Club’s polygamy forms a straightforward contrast with the village’s normative polygamous marriages, since both involve envy & ruptures)

P.S. – this is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English and is very much banned in Equatorial Guinea

 

want to read La Bastarda? visit here

Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela

a nutshell: folding back & forth between Sudan and Scotland (as well as the occasional glimpse of Egypt, England & the UAE) these 13 short stories unveil a little of how it feels to forge a new life far from one’s homeland

a line: “I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me?”

an image: in ‘The Museum’ a Scottish classmate invites Sudanese student Shadia along to an exhibition about Africa (alarmingly vague as that is), where she quickly realises nothing represented her or what she missed about home – it was all merely Europe’s version & clichés about Africa, old and cold

a thought: in several of her stories Aboulela presents relationships in which two people are at odds in approaching their cultural contexts; at one point in ‘The Ostrich’ Majdy tells his wife that if she covers her hair in London they will think he is forcing her to, while she recalls her past in Sudan as a “freer woman”

a fact: Aboulela, who grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen, won the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘The Museum’

 

want to read Elsewhere Home? visit here

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

a nutshell: a Parsee girl, Lenny, candidly narrates her 1940s Lahore childhood as it mutates from a life of carefree mischief & chatter among miscellaneous friends to Partition-provoked horrors & heartache

a line: “Don’t hog God!”

an image: a colonel retells the story of the Parsis’ migration to India from Persia during the Arab invasion in 600s AD, evoking how the Indian Prince noted their arrival with a full glass of milk as a polite signal of his aversion to outsiders & their potentially disturbing alien ways; the Parsee forefathers returned the milk with a teaspoon of sugar stirred in – an indication that they’d be absorbed harmoniously into the country and sweeten the lives of his subjects

a thought: privy to adults’ tense discussions of the inevitable split, Lenny begins to notice that everyone she knows suddenly goes from being just themselves to being ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, or ‘Christian’; tribalism is forced onto them – as the country breaks, so too does her own community fracture

a fact: India and Pakistan have been embroiled in numerous conflicts since 1947, and just today Pakistan has announced it shot down two Indian military jets; sadly the clashes depicted in this now 28-year-old novel show no signs of abating

 

want to read Cracking India (aka Ice Candy Man)? visit here

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

a nutshell: Tambu, a young girl in a deprived Shona village, cautiously recounts her years of struggle against sexism & racism in the hope of gaining an education and opening up opportunities for her family within a society that presumes her failure

a line: “You have to keep moving … Getting involved in this and that, finding out one thing and another. Moving, all the time. Otherwise you get trapped” (– advice to Tambu from her semi-westernised cousin, Nyasha)

an image: it’s hard to watch as Tambu’s painstaking efforts to grow maize and earn her primary school fees are thwarted by sabotage & scorn – her brother’s active hostility to the prospect of her schooling is one of many reasons behind Tambu’s frank opening statement that she was “not sorry” at his death; we learn that he constantly gloried in the exclusion & oppression she had faced as a girl since birth

a thought: memory is an ongoing source of anxiety to Tambu, particularly around identity; her observations on how (i) her brother’s British missionary education erased his self-recognition and generated a warped sense of superiority (ii) her cousin’s English upbringing tore at her roots and left her deeply unsettled

a fact: the title is from an intro to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartha 1961 text on the trauma of colonisation, which contains the line: “The condition of native is a nervous condition”; Dangarembga does not shy away from exposing the insidious influence of British colonialism, which lurks behind scenes of subservience, conservatism, misogyny, linguistic alienation, trauma,  hypocrisy, injustice… (the ramifications are endless)

want to read Nervous Conditions? visit here

Farewell, Damascus by Ghada Samman (tr. Nancy Roberts)

a nutshell: a fervent ode to liberty, this novel follows an idealistic young writer – Zain – who strives to be independent in (and ultimately beyond) circles that wants to repress her

a line“A homeland should have enough room for everybody, even for people who have the audacity to criticise … As it is, our coffee shops and restaurants have ears planted in their walls. They’re even planted in the walls of our lungs, our arteries, and our fear-sickened souls.”

an image: towards the end, Samman lovingly daubs a colourful picture of Beirut’s hive mind in contrast to the conservatism of Damascus; roundtable discussions send conversation and laughter through night air “like sparks from a bonfire”

a thought: the last few chapters are disappointingly inconsistent with Zain’s character, and felt like it betrayed the earlier progressive nature of the book

a fact: Samman (b. 1942) established her own publishing house, Ghada al-Samman Publications, to circumvent censorship – looking at a biography, Zain’s story is very reminiscent of the author’s own

 

want to read Farewell, Damascus? visit here

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

a nutshell: 15yo Kambili lets us peek into her household, where the deep-rooted reign of her tyrant father – a fanatical Catholic – is starting to show signs of decay

a line“Perhaps we will talk more with time, or perhaps we never will be able to say it all, to clothe things in words, things that have long been naked”

an image: Kambili’s father’s renouncement of his own father (Papa-Nnukwu) since the old man holds onto ancestors’ faith means Kambili & her brother are permitted just one very fleeting, futile meeting annually with their poverty-stricken grandfather, which makes for a moving scene in his ramshackle yard

a thought: for me the novel flagged up how a sense of fear and worship meshes in such an inextricable way – both within a family unit and within the religious sphere

a fact: Chimamanda grew up in Nsukka as the fifth of six children in an Igbo family whose ancestral village was Aba – these towns are at the centre of her debut

 

want to read Purple Hibiscus? visit here