Le Déserteur by Hélène Kaziende

Text of Le Deserteur against blue sky

a nutshell: in a letter addressed to Africa from Samzi Dikinfa of Erquifa, this short yet immensely powerful piece of prose shares an insight into the complexities around why someone might leave a homeland – not necessarily by choice

a line: I’m leaving, tired of aborted promises and murdered suns” (“je m’en vais, lassé des promesses avortées et des soleils assassinés”)

an image: I found myself moved by the portrayal of being surrounded by ‘professional’ drunks, while the self-described deserter thirsts not for alcohol but rather for a bit of justice and freedom

a thought: I wondered whether there was any significance to the date of the letter, 15 August 1990, and discovered through the internet that it was on this day that at least 150 people were killed in clashes between the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa

a fact: this story won a prize in a competition by radio station Africa No. 1 and features in the 1992 collection Kilomètre 30, which I managed to get a copy of through Better World Books – its arrival was quite poignant, as it was the very final book to arrive for my entire project

want to read Kaziende’s writing? visit here

The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shahidi (tr. Altima Group)

book cover with woman in red dress in beautiful countryside

a nutshell: these four stories give a rare glimpse of what life can look like amid social unrest (particularly with reference to perestroika) across three generations in Tajikstan, recounting episodes of love, loss and ultimately hope

a line: “The world is not without good people and it is inherent that I join them at the helm to bring joy, kindness and happiness to others”

an image: I loved the description of memory as an unwritten book (also can’t help but share one of the wonderful illustrations within the pages – see below!)

a thought: time & time again in the books I’ve read during this project there’s been a comment on the depth and breadth of women’s suffering worldwide and this one was no exception, noting how hard it is to be a woman following an account of a predatory older neighbour accosting and later threatening a single mother

a fact: born in Leningrad in 1955, Shahidi graduated in journalism from Tajik University and wrote this collection in Russian – her hope is that the English edition is just the start of it being translated into other languages

want to read The City Where Dreams Come True? visit here

drawing of three women by water

Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle)

cockfight book yellow cover against blanket floral

a nutshell: through 13 stories of extraordinary power, this steely debut from Ecuadorian writer Ampuero spotlights the ruinous & cyclical nature of domestic abuse

a line: “But it was just faith, the most pathetic of feelings. Faith didn’t do a goddamn thing”

an image: Ampuero is astonishingly talented at building tension, such as when one character describes how the presence of her friends’ father means they had to whisper and the air filled with an electric energy, wet, like when a huge storm is coming

a thought: I was bowled over time & time again by these stories, particularly their dagger-like endings, and finished the book within hours (which really is something, given that I’ve struggled to engage fully with books as we approach our 14th week of lockdown no.2 in Melbourne) – one thought that’s stuck in my head is a protagonist’s comment about vacations in these countries being all about contrasts – I have been guilty of this, a desire for contrasts, in my travels

a fact: this interview is a fascinating exploration of the mind behind Cockfight (& I couldn’t agree more with Ampuero that there’s nothing more profound than the harm your family can cause you; as she shares, “You can leave your family, I did it many, many years ago, but your family does not leave you”)

want to read Cockfight? visit here

Stories from the Gambia by Sally Sadie Singhateh

a nutshell: with titles such as ‘Evil Begets Punishment’ & ‘It Does Not Pay to Be Greedy’, these three short stories for children come with clear moral intentions, but also captivating illustrations and glimpses into Gambian culture

a line: “But readers, no matter how long something takes, it always comes to an end” (a reasurring line given our current lockdown)

an image: a black cobra starts to talk to a young woman, Morai, and turns out to be the world’s most powerful (and evil) sorcerer Baiankaya

a thought: though I wasn’t entirely onboard with the way in which women are depicted in these stories, I’d be keen to read Singhateh’s novella The Sun Will Soon Shine about an ambitious & resilient woman

a fact: born in 1977, Singhateh also writes poetry

want to read Stories from the Gambia? visit here

Fiery Curses by Noura Mohammad Faraj (tr. William M Hutchins)

a nutshell: in this title story from Qatari writer Faraj’s collection, a woman revisits an inflammatory book from childhood which transforms her perspective

a line: “the tongues of emirs, poets, and muezzins were indistinguishable from those of barflies”

an image: embedded in the narrator’s mind is an image of herself in cartoon form being chased by her father, who pelts her with hot embers as she flees

a thought: I tried to look up the book’s author, Abu al-Fadl al-Tashti, but couldn’t find anything – I’d be curious to know the significance (if any!) of this name

a fact: Faraj is an Assistant Professor at the Arabic Language Dept at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and has published two academic books and one short story collection (The Totem)

want to read Fiery Curses? visit here

The Gravedigger’s Son by Teresa Colom (tr. Mara Faye Lethem)

a nutshell: with one of the most unique & memorable frameworks I’ve encountered in my project, this story explores an extraordinary childhood set among tombstones

a line: “Death had been tempted by the idea of being a mother for centuries”

an image: my favourite moment was the one in which, as if harvesting an onion, the astonished gravedigger pulled something entirely unexpected out of a grave (no spoilers here!)

a thought: I was amused by the way in which Colom colourfully details the assumptions made by local characters about the child’s origins, each figuring that he had come from another without ever making efforts to find out the truth

a fact: born in Andorra in 1973, Colom writes poetry as well as prose – excerpts are available to read here

The Gravedigger’s Son is not yet in publication – watch this space!

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

kindle edition of book with cat next to it

a nutshell: drawing on her own experiences, poet & short story writer Thammavongsa’s debut collection explores moments of unease or disjunction for Laotian immigrants across 14 stories

a line: “I know now what I couldn’t have known then––she wouldn’t just be gone, she’d stay gone.” (‘Edge of the World’)

an image: I liked how, despite living in the same apartment block, the two girls in ‘A Far Distant Thing’ would chat on the phone each evening to describe the details of their day – practising for their (aspiring) writing careers

a thought: the pressures & injustices involved in making a living are a recurring focus, and ‘Picking Worms’ is a particularly devastating instance of when doors are open for mediocre white people and closed for talented Lao people

a fact: born in the (Lao) Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand in 1978, Thammavongsa and her parents were sponsored by a family in Canada when she was one year old

want to read How to Pronounce Knife? visit here

The Ringing Body by Fatima Yousef al-Ali (tr. William Maynard Hutchins)

CW: suicide

a nutshell: this story follows how an unsettling call from a stranger at midnight leaves a woman in a confusing state of anticipation

a line: “Your heart must dwell in a cellar, three steps down or more”

an image: at one point, the woman looks back at the receiver which, she says, hung there like a corpse – a jarring image given the earlier mention of potential suicide

a thought: the bizarreness of their conversation arguably peaks when the woman asks if he agrees with the director of broadcasting that radio is television’s sister, yet the man says radio is on the contrary an extremely cultured gentleman and he prefers shortwave to longwave as he can embrace shortwave more fully

a fact: born in 1953, Yousef al-Ali’s thesis at Cairo University dealt with Kuwaiti women and the short story

want to read The Ringing Body? visit here

Des Contes pour la Lune by Edna Merey-Apinda

N.B. I read this book in its original French language, but I would LOVE to discover that an English-language translation of these beautiful & heart-warming short stories from Gabon might someday become available!

a nutshell: an owl plays the role of storyteller for his friend, the moon, to help her shine brightly – fantastic stories of Lulu the dragonfly’s woes at the Ball of the Fireflies, Cali the chief monkey’s nightmarish choice for successor, Sieur the raven’s tendency to see la vie en noir, and the songs & strife of Beauty the turtledove

a line: “Luna was his only daughter, the pupil of his eyes, his sun, the sugar in his banana” (I will always love that very last phrase)

an image: there were many magical images, but to pick just one – ahead of the Ball of the Fireflies, we hear of the stars’ plans to wear their most sparkling jewelry to ensure the party is dazzling

a thought: I was interested in how, more than once, the wind was the cause of angst among these wonderful animals’ comings and goings – the natural elements were also  anthropomorphised, and the wind very much held the position of mischief-maker

a fact: having grown up in Gabon’s second-largest city and leading seaport, Port-Gentil, Merey-Apinda writes in her blurb that it was from meetings across her birthplace’s borders that she came to want to share her love for words

want to read Des Contes pour la Lune? visit here

Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi (tr. Jessica Sequeira)

Our Dead World book with picture of camera on front cover, flowers and brick wall in background

a nutshell: these one hundred pages of short stories vary in setting (from South America to Paris to Mars) but share a sense of instability & dreamlike quasi-horror

a line: “I coldn’t understand how someone could laugh on the way to his own death”

an image: one powerful story, ‘The Wave’, personifies depression as a wave that finds the narrator at night, living on the limits of sleep with faces of a kaleidoscope of horror

a thought: for me, the first half of the collection was each gripping & unusual, whereas I actually found the titular story (‘Our Dead World’) a little confusing & dry; overall it’s a fantastical, unique book

a fact: in 2015 Colanzi won the Aura Estrada Prize – awarded to female, Spanish-language writers under 35 currently living in the US or Mexico

want to read Our Dead World? visit here