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

Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett

a nutshell: set in Kiribati, this beautiful children’s book follows a young girl’s resilient attempts to protect her home from the rising sea

a line: “Kairo, if you help me build my wall, I can help you build your wall”

an image: I particularly loved the page (below) where Teaote happily dreams of rippling rainbow fish, coconut trees stretching up to the clouds, and the mango-coloured sun

a thought: to me this was a moving insight into what it’s like for children on the frontlines of the climate crisis, all the more so given that the book is based on the true story of Marita’s mother Teaote

a fact: Davies closes the book with a note about Kiribati – home to 100,000 indigenous i-Kiribati people and sitting halfway between Australia & Hawaii, this small Pacific nation is predicted to disappear underwater in 50 years

want to read Teaote and the Wall? visit here

‘Petty Tyrants’ by Conceição Lima (tr. Amanda Hopkinson)

Lima

a nutshell: first published in Lima’s collection Dolorosa raiz micondó (Painful root of Micondó), this poem is a short & stark impression of petty tyrants

a line: “They don’t know that clock hands are also blindly tyrannical”

an image: I was especially struck by the poet’s vivid description of petty tyrants blindfolding sparkling eyes, letting no light enter

a thought: I loved Lima’s repetitions throughout the poem, mirroring the ways in which petty tyrants themselves (meagre, narrow, slow) try to replicate what’s come before, rather than give space to progress – amplifying the echo of their perpetual childhood

a fact: born in Santana on the island of São Tomé in 1961, Lima studied journalism in Portugal and worked across radio, television & the press in São Tomé

want to read ‘Petty Tyrants’? visit here

Les Enfants du Khat by Mouna-Hodan Ahmed

Town beside water on book cover, sat on desk next to coffee, pencil and plant

a nutshell: this unique novel follows the life of an eldest daughter who has to grow up quickly due to her father’s addiction to khat, a hallucinogenic herb, which wreaks havoc across society – with particularly sinister impacts on women

a line: “Pourquoi sommes-nous obligés de retoucher son chef-d’œuvre? Sommes-nous plus savant que lui?” | “Why are we forced to retouch his masterpiece? Are we more knowledgeable than him?” – on female genital mutilation (FGM) and God’s will

an image: throughout this hard-hitting novel, Ahmed is unsparing in her depictions of the violence against women that exists not only within Djibouti but globally – from domestic abuse to sexual coercion to FGM

a thought: the book opens with a quote from Pius Ngandu Nkashama about African youth being at a crossroads, and this seems to be the ongoing theme of Les Enfants du Khat – the potential power of young people to generate change

a fact: I was intrigued by the beautiful image on the book’s cover and discovered it was a photo of Tadjoura, one of Djibouti’s oldest towns & an important port for many centuries; Tadjoura evolved into an early Islamic centre with the arrival of Muslims shortly after the Hijra, and is also known for its whitewashed buildings, nearby beaches, and mosques

want to read Les Enfants du Khat? visit here

Les Humiliées by Koumanthio Zeinab Diallo

Guinean family outdoors in conversation on cover of book, held against plant

a nutshell: set in a village in the Republic of Guinea, this powerful play sets out to combat all forms of violence against women and remove political/legal barriers to women’s full participation in decision-making

a line: “N’est-ce pas comme un objet qu’on achète et dont on se sert pour le jeter ensuite?” | “Isn’t it like an object that we buy and use then throw it away?”

an image: at one point Soro (from the older generation) says his father liked to say a woman is like a goat – if you play with her, she’ll bite you one day, so a husband must always make them fear him and never laugh with them since they are devils

a thought: the playwright highlights the immense pressure on women to give their husbands sons, i.e. heirs, and how this makes them ‘true women’ – Mariama’s attempt to convey that it wasn’t her fault she gave birth to daughters elicits a furious response

a fact: in the introduction Diallo shares that this subject matter was drawn from her own sister’s distress & silencing after being disowned by her husband

want to read Les Humiliées? 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

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

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

a nutshell: in this memoir of boarding school, Mkhonza takes the reader through her daily life as an earnest, though sometimes mischievous, pupil in what was then called Swaziland (now Eswatini)

a line: “What we needed was an education for a newly independent nation, one that would allow us to create our own worlds”

an image: the final scene ends the novel on an earnestly optimistic note, describing the bus ride out of school into the countryside – the mountains’ beauty, blue sky, white clouds

a thought: Mkhonza reflects often on freedom, the different ways in which we are free as children and as adults, and how we long for the other version at various points in our lives

a fact: an outspoken activist for women’s rights under her country’s monarchy, Mkhonza’s refusal to stop criticising the government’s repressive policies resulted in threats, assaults & hospitalization – she eventually left for the United States

want to read Weeding the Flowerbeds? visit here

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

a nutshell: set in 1981, this heartbreakingly evocative novel follows a young woman as she explores her memories while attempting to flee the violence of her homeland, Jamaica

a line: “Jamaica was too young to die”

an image: a rural sign reading ‘FRESH POETRY & EGGS’ is left to interpretation – spelling or reality?

a thought: I identified strongly with the main character, Jean, particuarly in how she reads constantly – pressing her ear close to the world of fictional characters, as Cezair-Thompson describes it, like a vagrant at a windowpane

a fact: towards the end of the novel, Jean realises she has always believed in egun iponri – ancestors – which the author explains more in this insightful interview

want to read The True History of Paradise? visit here