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

Southpaw by Lisa St Aubin de Terán

Southpaw book by ivy plant

a nutshell: written over 25 years, these dogged short stories of dispossessed individuals are set first on or around the Hacienda Santa Rita (a sugar plantation in the Venezuelan Andes) then in Umbria, Italy – two places where the author chanced to live

a line: “Life took longer to live in the wet weather”

an image: SPOILER | for me, ‘Eladio and the Boy’ was an especially moving story – I found myself genuinely upset by the scene of inexplicable loss when Eladio’s quiet friendship with a pair of eagles is shattered by human intrusion & violence

a thought: I looked up the definition of southpaw: (1) a boxer whose strongest hand is the left (2) a person who uses their left hand to do most things – which I assume alludes to the stories’ contexts of South America and southern Italy, as well as the narratives of eccentricity (since left-handedness was historically perceived as such) and the characters’ ability both to receive and to administer blows

a fact: in the intro, the writer openly labels herself an “alien observer” in these communities; in the absence of anywhere specific to call home, she says she found an “emotional home in other people’s roots”

want to read Southpaw? visit here

Bright by Duanwad Pimwana (tr. Mui Poopoksakul)

"Bright" book by Duanwad Pinwana against plain background

a nutshell: a vessel of child’s-eye vignettes, this dreamlike book transports readers to a cluster of tenement houses in Thailand where a community becomes parent to a semi-orphaned boy named Kampol

a line: “The two were sketching out dreams in their heads, but neither of them said a word to the other”

an image: I’d have to pick the scene where Kampol ‘reads aloud’ an illiterate girl’s squiggles, interpreting them as a touching birthday message for her overjoyed and equally illiterate grandmother

a thought: the topic of food is among the few constants across the chapters, both in terms of hunger and greed; at one point Kampol urges a neighbour to feed an emaciated man after hearing a story in which starvation drives a person to lose control and lash out – Kampol almost doesn’t register that he too has known real hunger

a fact: this is the first novel by a Thai woman translated into English, according to the publisher – Pimwana was born in a fishing/farming community on the east coast of Thailand, where she lives and draws inspiration for the magical/social realism of her writing

 

want to read Bright? visit here

Wedding in Autumn & Other Stories by Shih Chiung-Yu (tr. Darryl Sterk)

a nutshell: set in Taiwan in the 1970-80s, this is a collection of three novellas focusing on marginalised people (particularly women) who suffer due to conflicts between nations, generations, and racial prejudices

a line“Women’s wombs are strange places: they can nourish new life and discharge it, over and over again. In that respect, a womb’s kind of like my big sister’s temper.”

an image: a disturbingly vivid scene in which a traumatised woman suffers a miscarriage and a young boy unwittingly deserts her was difficult to shake from my mind

a thought: the importance of investing time & effort in learning about women’s rights issues globally was reinforced for me when I found out that Chiung-Yu’s titular story was inspired by her involvement in Irish protests for women’s reproductive rights while she was living in Dublin, as these had prompted her to think about how women in her own society could be seen as second-class citizens

a fact: born in 1968, the author grew up in Taitung County – the setting of her novellas – along the southeastern shore of the island of Taiwan

 

want to read Wedding in Autumn? 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

Five favourite books of 2018

A few reflections on the books I most enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order!)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

One of the earliest novels I picked up for my project, Disoriental had me thoroughly gripped on a long bus journey through Slovenia in July. (I was so invested in what happened to Kimiâ that I didn’t even realise we had arrived at our destination.) Mirroring her main protagonist, the author is likewise the daughter of exiled Iranian intellectuals. The book’s themes in fact echoed through many other women writers’ works I’ve read since – ancestry, authority,  liberty, identity – but there was something acutely searing about Kimiâ’s story. 100% recommend.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf (tr. Mara Faye Letham)

It was around two hot chocolates in on an overcast August (!) afternoon that I realised how much of a personal connection I’d have with this novel-notes-autofiction-travelogue book (it really is as composite as all that). This came about in (i) the narrator’s recollections of moulding herself to fit with her brother’s autism (ii) her appetite for exploring the unknown (iii) her curiosity about language – Catalan to her felt reminiscent of what my Welsh language is to me. A unique, exquisite book.

Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)

I was whisked through this dreamy blur of a novel in the midst of our late summer heatwave in September. So addicted was I that I finished it on just the second day of reading, on a slightly-too-long lunch break, and could hardly wait to flick back through to write my mini-review. I loved how Bandyopadhyay emphasised the tensions of being both mother and writer by playing with the narrative voice, and Sinha’s translation from the original Bengali was genuinely breathtaking at some points.

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Shortly after reading this sharp, entertaining story collection in October I had the thrill of meeting the author at the Free Word Centre. Robayo is as insightful (yet self-deprecating!) in person as her writing suggests. Fish Soup probes corners of society that remain largely impenetrable. It’s unapologetic, astute – as well as humorous and devastating in turn.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft)

I knew as I was finishing this idiosyncratic book that I’d have to revisit the author’s writing after my project. I found Flights at times overwhelming (perhaps since I was reading it, unfittingly, on a sizzling beach on the Côte d’Azur) but dazzling in its seesawing between panoramic and microscopic outlooks. The union of Tokarczuk and Croft makes for prose that’s impossible to forget.

Soweto Stories by Miriam Tlali

a nutshell: this 1989 short story collection casts a unique light on Sowetans – mostly women – persevering within a cruel landscape of apartheid and patriarchy

a line“It was a strong, stoic and steadfast face which, to both her children, never seemed to yield to the vicissitudes of life and the inevitable hazards of ageing.”

an image: in one of the perennially congested train carriages into which black South Africans were forced, a woman clenches as a man probes her thighs – her screams unheard in the noisy, suffocating compartment; on arrival she is “too hurt, too shamefully abused, to speak” (gender-based violence runs throughout Tlali’s fiction)

a thought: at first I found the style challenging – e.g. Tlali often dips into other languages (which I worked out were Sesotho and Afrikaans, maybe among others) not necessarily with translation, and many English words are punctuated ‘like this’ – but after a while I came to appreciate how she kept her world alive in this distinct way

a fact: the first black South African woman to publish a novel (Muriel at Metropolitan / Between Two Worlds, 1975), most of Tlali’s writing was originally banned by the South African apartheid regime and she endured years of harassment by police for her work

 

want to read Soweto Stories? visit here

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

a nutshell: in this melodious bildungsroman an Antiguan girl, Annie, leads us on a frank journey through her adolescence – beginning in paradise and ending in acrimony

a line: “How to explain to her about the thimble that weighed worlds, and the dark cloud that was like an envelope in which my mother and I were sealed?”

an image: Annie describes her headmistress – Miss Moore from England – as resembling a prune left out of its jar with a voice borrowed from an owl

a thought: reviews of Annie John curiously tend to be just as ‘love/hate’ as Annie’s feelings; many reviewers put their hatred down to their dislike for Annie herself, yet I came away thinking she was one of the more honest, familiar narrators I’ve come across – and liked her for her bluntness

a fact: each chapter was published by the New Yorker separately before being compiled and published as a book – hence its episodic nature

 

want to read Annie John? visit here

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. by Charlotte Coombe)

a nutshell: visceral novellas/stories of longing, repulsion, tumult – Robayo beckons her readers into moments that distill what it is to be human & unsettled; even the prose discomfits, simultaneously stark & evocative

a line: “he zealously fed his American dream in fear that if he forgot to feed it one day, it would keel over in front of him like a starving baby bird”

an image: a disabled obese boy lies back watching clouds – surrounded by his dad, uncle & carer – inwardly wishing he’d be swept away

a thought: the author never tells you what to think, but the potency of a passage in which a young girl is gang-raped then expelled by her Catholic school due to her parents administering a morning-after pill speaks silent volumes about the lot of women in society

a fact: this collection includes Robayo’s previously unpublished story, Sexual Education – a semi-autobiographical glimpse of a student’s disorientation between her school’s obsessive doctrine of abstinence & societal norms beyond the classroom

 

want to read Fish Soup? visit here

The Sea Cloak by Nayrouz Qarmout (tr. Charis Bredin)

I read this short story in The Book of Gaza (ed. Atef Abu Saif)

a nutshell: a sensory snapshot of relationships in Gaza – under the strain of society’s prying eyes

a line: “The noise of the past would grant her no respite”

an image: a littered beach is beautified by an allusion to dreaming souls sheltering within the scattered tents; Nayrouz describes Gaza as a young girl yet to learn the art of elegance

a thought: even when thrown into a crisis, a woman’s fear of shame controls her actions

a fact: the challenge of copying & transporting a story from Gaza to Jerusalem’s publishing houses led to the short story form blossoming, so much so that Gaza became known in Palestinian circles abroad as ‘the exporter of oranges and short stories’ 

*bonus fact*: unfamiliar with the term ‘nargila’, I looked it up to find it was the Hebrew word for hookah, rooted in the Sanskrit for ‘coconut’ – which suggests early hookahs were hewn from coconut shells

 

want to read The Book of Gaza? visit here