Saman by Ayu Utami (tr. Pamela Allen)

Saman book with cover of woman writing on park bench and Empire State building in backdrop; book against blue sky and trees

a nutshell: this unusual novel drops in & out of the lives of several sexually liberated Indonesian women and a former Catholic priest, Saman, while exploring the perils facing a rubber tapping community

a line (or a few): “Something can suddenly evaporate from our memory, like a ghost, like a dream. We can feel the trace of it, somewhere within ourselves, without being able to reconstruct it anymore. We are left with hatred, anger, fear, love. But we don’t know why.”

an image: one character, Shakuntala, envisages her country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum – at one end is inefficiency or an unwillingness to act, on the other are all the ‘excesses’

a thought: women’s rights are a recurring theme throughout the novel, particularly in the chapter by Shakuntala, who rejects a visa application’s insistence that she take her father’s name as Javanese don’t have surnames (instead she decides to split her own name in two: ‘Shakun Tala’)

a fact: published in 1998, the novel was controversial due to its sexual explicitness and even prompted questions as to whether it was Utami’s own work (!!!); it ultimately became viewed as a ground-breaking work and sold 100,000 copies, as well as igniting the sastra wangi literary movement – a category that Utami herself has criticised

want to read Saman? visit here

Always Coca-Cola by Alexandra Chreiteh (tr. Michelle Hartman)

a nutshell: Abeer, a 20ish-year-old woman from a conservative family in dusty Beirut, lets us into the concerns preoccupying herself and her friends (think: virginity/pregnancy, sanitary pads, appearances)

a line: “Should I wait for an Always pad to fall from the heavens like rain, or a white dove, flapping its wings that keep the moisture from leaking out onto my clothes?”

an image: a boy informs Abeer that just as lemonade has three essential ingredients – water, lemon, sugar – so does a woman have three attributes; she must be a virgin, a wife, and a mother, in that order (blergh)

a thought: even with its attempts at humour, this is a sad novel voiced by a young protagonist with a blinkered attitude to women’s rights & essential freedoms; also, the second half contains a harrowing incident that is somewhat skimmed over

a fact: according to the blurb, the book received a stormy response in Lebanon (“an electric shock … grave social anomalies”) despite Chreiteh centring the book around Abeer, rigidly conservative & dogmatic, with her friends as the far more progressive characters

want to read Always Coca-Cola? visit here

My Walk to Equality: Essays, Stories & Poetry by Papua New Guinean Women – ed. Rashmii Amoah Bell

a nutshell: this eclectic anthology gives voice to diverse women from all corners of Papua New Guinean society, gathering their compelling thoughts and moving experiences under four themes: relationships, self-awareness, challenging gender roles, and legacy

a line: “The skies open up and let down a shower. It drowns out the sound giving the drummer more power . . . My sister, my sister did you feel the drum beat?” (an excerpt from Vanessa Gordon’s devastating poem ‘Drumbeat’)

an image: having grown up in a culture of misogyny and colourism, photographer Tania Basiou captures truly beautiful images following her decision that through her lens there’d be body positivity, femininity, empowerment and a celebration not only of being a woman, but also a Papua New Guinean woman

a thought: the intrinsic value of story-telling is highlighted by Theresa Meki, who recounts one of the tumbuna (old legend) stories that her mother, a Kafe woman from the Eastern Highlands, would tell her children to impart an understanding of justice and why one must respect women

a fact: this book’s publication was spurred on by the fact that Bell was the only women on the panel ‘PNG: A State of Writing’ at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival

 

want to read My Walk to Equality? visit here*

*Sorry for the Amazon link – it’s the only place I could access the book; please let me know if you find alternatives!

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

a nutshell: this three-part novella from South Korea tells the starkly powerful story of a woman named Yeong-hye who takes a quiet yet explosive stand against her oppressive existence

a line: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

an image: the enigma of the Mongolian mark sustains what was, for me, the most engrossing chapter

a thought: one theme that runs through the entire novella is the idea that everyone is fundamentally unknowable – even to those with whom every day is spent

a fact: in 1997 Han Kang wrote a short story (‘The Fruit of My Woman’) about a woman literally turning into a plant, then reworked the image in The Vegetarian in what she called “a darker and fiercer way”

 

want to read The Vegetarian? visit here