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

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King book – woman's silhouette on colourful battlefield

a nutshell: this is a powerful, brutal story of what it is to be a woman at war – both within a household & within a country – set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia

a line“These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.”

an image: an Italian-Jewish soldier-photographer tries to looks behind an Ethiopian prisoner’s face into her mind and sees nothing besides sturdy, thick thoughts of survival & routine, revealing the short-sighted lens of the invaders

a thought: the visceral, ongoing effect that a father’s gentle letter has on the photographer (and by turn on his superior) is a moving glimpse into how toxic masculinity is preventable, not inevitable; men’s violence against women is an incessant theme in the novel – and here I should note that the book contains many graphic descriptions of sexual assault

a fact: the author put together a brilliant article listing books that influenced her own novel; the list features several authors I’ve read as part of this project – Svetlana Alexievich, Aminatta Forna, Jenny Erpenbeck – a reminder of the potency that lies within women’s perspectives on traditionally ‘unwomanly’ fields

want to read The Shadow King? visit here

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (tr. Sam Taylor)

Lullaby on tiled floor

a nutshell: a seemingly flawless nanny, Louise, has just killed the two young children she cherishes, and this utterly addictive novel rewinds to unravel why

a line: “Her heart has grown hard. The years have covered it in a thick, cold rind and she can barely hear it beating. Nothing moves her any more”

an image: Louise’s spiralling obsession with avoiding waste sees her dig out a gone-off chicken carcass binned by the mother and, in a distressing scene, instruct the children to scrape off the last bits of meat, washed down with big glasses of Fanta so they wouldn’t choke

a thought: as the only white nanny in the neighbourhood, Louise is an anomaly among the community of immigrant nannies who gather with the kids at the local playground;  in Slimani’s story it’s the mother, the boss, who is an immigrant

a fact: the book was inspired by the 2012 murder of two children by their nanny in New York – though it was very well received in France, it didn’t have the same reception in the US

bonus quote: Slimani says of writing: “For me, it is freedom, freedom from everything: when I write I’m not a woman, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Moroccan. I can reinvent myself and I can reinvent the world”

want to read Lullaby? visit here

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

a nutshell: told by a young solitary boy who is essentially raising himself on the isolated Neapolitan island of Procida, this is a story of confused adoration and imagination

a line: “If it weren’t for women, existence would be eternal youth, a garden!”

an image: after the affection-starved Arturo observes N kissing her baby son, everything seemed to be kissing – boats, sea & island, air & leaves, sheep & earth

a thought: Arturo’s father leads a mysterious life – one that would perhaps be infinitely simpler if he were to have lived in the 21st century; the book was published in 1957

a fact: this NYT article is a fascinating insight into Morante’s life

want to read Arturo’s Island? visit here

Collected Stories by Patricia Grace

a nutshell: gathering stories by one of New Zealand’s most prominent Māori authors, Grace’s writing offers a fascinating insight into life in this corner of the world

a line: “It’s fashionable for a Pakeha to have a Māori for a friend”

an image: Grace’s loving descriptions of the landscape were a highlight for me, particularly as I was reading it while travelling around NZ’s South Island – observations of the sun putting its finger on everything, the sky rightly bestowing tears on earth, lupins, ledges, and a joyous big stink of pigs

a thought: one story that will stay with me for some time was ‘Journey’, which closes with an old man sitting on the edge of his bed looking at his palms, utterly dejected & heartbroken after an exhausting effort to try to defend his land from development – insisting that “if it’s your stamping ground and you have your ties there, then there’s no land equal, surely that wasn’t hard to understand”

a fact: Waiariki (1975), which is included in this book, was the first short story collection by a Māori woman writer

want to read Collected Stories? visit here

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


want to read Maru? visit here


100 Best Women Writers in Translation

Dropping in just ahead of the deadline to post my top ten (so far) – here they are!

  1. Iran: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)
  2. Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (tr. Lawrence Schimel)
  3. Spain (Catalan): Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf (tr. Mara Faye Letham)
  4. India: Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)
  5. Colombia: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)
  6. Côte d’IvoireAya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie (tr. Helge Dascher)
  7. Argentina: Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)
  8. Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (tr. Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson)
  9. Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)
  10. HungaryThe Door by Magda Szabó (tr. Len Rix)