Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

TW – this review contains references to sexual assault

a nutshell: a short, narrative nonfiction book bearing witness to the suffering of undocumented children navigating the US immigration system, drawing on Luiselli’s work as a volunteer court translator in New York

a line: “It is perhaps not the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born”

an image: the writer describes seeing child migrants enter the court system as like being stood with hands and feet tied, powerless, watching kids try to cross a busy avenue with cars speeding by

a thought: rather than writing off these children as “illegals” or “aliens” we should regard them as refugees of a hemispheric war (in which the US has long been complicit), Luiselli argues, all of whom have the right to asylum

a fact: the writer notes the horrifying reality that 80% of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the journey

 

want to read Tell Me How It Ends? visit here

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

a nutshell: this is breathless, bewildering, bestial fiction streaming from the pulsating mind of a young woman near-delirious with lust & frustration

a line: “I’m thinning out, becoming just an idea”
a bonus line: “I despise this life where in the kitchen at a certain time of day the water starts to boil” (I couldn’t choose just one; almost every line kicks like a neckful of Fernet)

an image: the narrator’s imaginings /recollections?/ of her mother’s sexual exploits are intensely disturbing – the volatile, perverse mother-daughter dynamic is the novel’s nucleus

a thought: I’ll be processing my 1000s of thoughts on Harwicz’s incendiary writing for some time! for now: one of the things that interested me a lot was the degree to which she pushed me to question what I’m willing to believe from the narrator – I closed the book with no idea how much was delusion/dream/reality

a fact: the novel is currently being adapted for the stage in Argentina, which I find a very curious prospect… I’ll be watching that space!

want to read Feebleminded? visit here

[PS. big thanks to Charco Press for the copy!]

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste

a nutshell: this highly charged, palpable prose is ignited by the sparks thrown off a heady encounter between a preacher, his daughter, a mechanic and his assistant in the wilds of northern Argentina

a line: “But Leni has no lost paradise to revisit. Her childhood was very recent but her memory of it was empty.”

an image: I found the omniscient narrator’s passage about the reverend’s sermons deeply unsettling, with the escalating intrusions of Christ’s tongue, finger, tongue until the climactic disgorging of the slimy black Devil-infused fabric

a thought: through its potency, this story carried me into a world profoundly different to the one I inhabit – immersing me for several hours in belief systems & ways of life so far from my own (a very useful exercise given how much time I spend in a filter bubble)

a fact: according to a 2017 survey, 76% of Argentina’s population is Christian – 66% Roman Catholic, 10% Evangelical Protestant; last year’s failure of the bill to legalise abortion highlighted the enduring power of the church in Argentinian politics

 

want to read The Wind That Lays Waste? visit here

[PS. big thanks to Charco Press for the copy!]

Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Lucy Greaves & Jennifer Adcock)

a nutshell: quite unlike anything I’ve read before, this is a spectacularly intimate anthology from one of Peru’s boldest writers on everything from female ejaculation and polygamy to transgender sex work and motherhood

a line: “With age, unless you make an effort to grow, you’re just more of what you always were.”

an image: Wiener ends the chapter about her body dysmorphia by describing a drawing she did after someone who loves her said he wished he had met her when she was little, so he could have told her she was the most beautiful girl in the world; in her drawing, she sits on his knee, believes his words, and can grow up without tallying her flaws

a thought: recording her conversation with Isabel Allende, Wiener says Allende viewed “women’s writing” as a term used derogatively and fought against this “segregation” for years, which made me feel conflicted – after all, this project’s primary purpose is to read & promote under-appreciated work by people identifying as women globally

a fact: Wiener is among the new generation of Latin American nonfictional cronistas (chroniclers) whose work drew on innovations from the ‘New Journalists’ of the 1960s–70s and is immersive, with a distinctive narrative voice and techniques lent by fiction – according to this v interesting LARB article

 

want to read Sexographies? visit here

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (tr. Lawrence Schimel)

a nutshell: this slim novel sees teenage orphan Okomo confront the suffocating rules of Fang culture in rural Equatorial Guinea where, though she’s under pressure to find a husband, her realisation that she’s not into men leads her towards an altogether different community

a line“if a man who is with another man us called a man-woman, what are women called who do the same?”

an image: throughout the book, the forest grows into an increasingly beautiful place full of freedoms, hope & unity

a thought: ‘witchcraft’ is thrown about by the conservative elders as the reason for all manner of misfortunes when in fact the architects of these circumstances are often those in local positions of power – either Fang men or mitangan (missionaries)

a fact: Abosede George’s afterword contributes many insights into the record of past dissident sexualities relating to the discussion around queerness and Africanness (though – for anyone who does read the book – I did disagree with her point that the Indecency Club’s polygamy forms a straightforward contrast with the village’s normative polygamous marriages, since both involve envy & ruptures)

P.S. – this is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English and is very much banned in Equatorial Guinea

 

want to read La Bastarda? visit here

The German Room by Carla Maliandi (tr. Frances Riddle)

a nutshell: on stumbling into a personal crossroads, a woman impulsively leaves Buenos Aires for Heidelberg – the city in which she spent her first five years – where her world widens into an unscripted, impassioned realm

a line: “Something suddenly became clear to me: I don’t want to buy a set of coffee mugs ever again, or straighten pictures on the wall, or decide where to put the rug that looks rustic but isn’t … I’d rather be surprised when I open the window”

an image: the final scene (which of course will remain a mystery here) is misty, fragile, exquisite – it veers nebulously towards the magical realism melded into much of South America’s literature

a thought: this was the second book by an Argentinian author that I read this week (the other was Norah Lange’s People in the Room, tr. Charlotte Whittle, And Other Stories); I hadn’t decided in advance which I’d review but chose The German Room for several reasons incl. (i) it had me far more engaged (ii) though the action takes place in Germany, its characters have a deep, fascinating relationship with Argentina as a country, (iii) Maliandi’s beautiful writing deserves to be shared

a fact: the book’s narrator has parallels with the author’s own life – she too is the daughter of philosophers who escaped Argentina’s military regime (though Maliandi’s parents took refuge in Venezuela rather than Germany)

* a bonus fact: film rights have apparently been sold to award-winning filmmaker Diego Lerman *

 

want to read The German Room? 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 Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker)

a nutshell: a quick, vaguely terrifying story about an intrusion into one’s home and mind – in fact, the crisscrossing of many existential borders

a line: “You grow accustomed to this: laughing in the face of the languages you don’t understand”

an image: flocks of pelicans repeatedly fly overhead, disappearing always into the same unknown place in the sky

a thought: or rather, thoughtlessness on my part – I assumed the narrator was a woman until alerted otherwise; it seemed like I had a subconscious preconception that women only write women (turns out, gender is a significant issue in the book in any case!)

a fact:  the translator (Sarah Booker)’s note points to The Iliac Crest’s context – an outbreak of femicides at the start of the 20th century, which prompted the author to highlight the disappearing/silencing of women’s bodies

 

want to read The Iliac Crest? visit here

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)

a nutshell: a short, graphic examination of a NY-based Chilean woman’s raw spiral into near-blindness and the resulting reorientation in dynamics with those around her*

a line: “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me”

an image: at one point the narrator describes a hot water bottle that had fallen to the floor as like a dead child, which typifies the blunt, unapologetic indignation quick to rise in the midst of the blindness

a thought: there were – when I could look – curious quirks throughout, e.g. the way Lina often truncates thoughts with a full stop, sometimes ending sentences abruptly with “I” or “we” – again perhaps a sign of her vexation

a fact: the author shares a first name with the protagonist and was herself temporarily blind when her eyes haemorrhaged and blood flooded her vision during her PhD at NYU – this novel is semi-autobiographical

 

want to read Seeing Red? visit here

*N.B. not for anyone with a particular squeamishness for eyes – a category which, by a stroke of bad luck, I fall v firmly into

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

a nutshell: a pure expanse of curiosity about polar exploration conceals, at first, the most pressing exploration in this book: selfhood, in the midst of challenging family relations

a line: “it’s in relationships, and not in places, that we rest”

an image: Kopf reveals her secret thought: all pools are interconnected, and this same water filters through us – making up 70% of our bodies – while the dry 30% of our bodies renews every 7 years; the only continuous part of us is our history

a thought: the narrator’s reflections on growing up with an autistic brother resonated strongly with me as the sister to an autistic brother myself – at one point she says she had to be an easy presence, independent, and describes a thin layer of ice forming between her and the others, almost paralleling her brother’s attitude

a fact: the earliest one in the book stuck with me – the word ‘Arctic’ comes from the Greek word ‘árktikos’ meaning ‘near the bear’ while ‘Antarctic’ is from ‘antárktikos’, ‘the place with no bears’, but rather penguins

 

want to read Brother in Ice? visit here