Poetry and I by Mbarka Mint al-Barra’ (tr. Joel Mitchell & PTC participants)

a nutshell: with just eighteen lines, Mauritanian poet/teacher al-Barra’ shares the beauty and power of poetry to her on a personal level

a line: “Trouble leeches ink from the quill”

an image: among her vivid impressions of poetry here al-Barra’ writes that its colours form the spectrum from grape to dawn – that is, from violet to red

a thought: I accessed this poem via Poetry Translation Centre (PTC) and really appreciate how they shed light on the translation process, e.g. in Joel Mitchell’s bridge translation the line quoted above was “Feather and ink drained concern” and it evolved into its final form through the the workshop

a fact: born in 1957 in al-Madhardhara, Mauritania (‘the country of the million poets’), al-Barra’ belongs to the third generation of modern poets – her poems address social issues and borrow images from religious texts, ancient Arab history & classical Arabic texts; as PTC writes, symbolism of religious stories is effective in a country deeply rooted in Arab-Islamic traditions

want to read Poetry and I? visit here

here you can also read another poem by al-Barra’, Message from a Martyr – written in response to the occupation of Palestine

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


Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

a nutshell: Ikstena braids together two very moving accounts of growing up under the Soviet occupation of Latvia – one from a mother & one from her daughter – to portray the crushing weight of societal oppression/terror on families

a line“We were destined for a somnambulant existence and condemned to call it life”

an image: milk is a recurring symbol – at one point a teacher is rendered speechless by the mother suggesting her daughter’s hatred of milk may stem from the fact that she didn’t breastfeed so as to protect her child from the breast milk of a person who didn’t want to live (elsewhere the mother refers to it as the bitter milk of incomprehension, of extinction)

a thought: the daughter’s realisation that her struggle to connect her mother to life & light in this world would alway end in stalemate hit me hard as a profound comment on the impossibility of banishing another person’s demons

a fact: between the individual stories, this novella gives many insights into existing under “the Russian boot” in 20th-century Latvia, e.g. travel requests often met with netselesoobrazno (non-essential) which regularly prevented people taking trips abroad – even for family members’ funerals


want to read Soviet Milk? visit here