10 Favourite Books in 2020

10. Eve Out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) – Mauritius

This novel was among the deliveries from the biiiiig Better World Books order I placed in March just as Melbourne’s earlier phase of restrictions began – and wow, it was a compelling distraction. It’s a short, harrowing story of four teenagers trying to survive the violence of their neighbourhood in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital. I follow the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on Twitter and had high expectations for this book. It surpassed them.

9. Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett – Kiribati

The arrival of this extraordinary book was a rare and much-needed source of excitement deep into Melbourne’s second (ultra intense) lockdown in September. I came across Australian/Kiribati writer Marita Davies’s work while researching writers from the Pacific and was instantly keen to read this story of a child confronting life on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The importance of climate-related books – especially for younger generations – goes without saying, particularly during a week when extreme weather and coastal destruction yet again dominates headlines in Australia.

8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. Brian FitzGibbon) – Iceland

It was a wintry evening in May when I read this gentle novel with my first foster cat on my lap (three more would follow across the two lockdowns!). The story very much transported me along the protagonist’s journey from his Icelandic home to a monastery rose garden in need of loving care. Quiet, slow and meditative, it felt like exactly what I needed at that point of this fast-paced and barely fathomable year.

7. Trans by Juliet Jacques – United Kingdom

I ordered this book in Verso’s December sale a year ago and read it as soon as it arrived in January. Juliet’s memoir is an incredibly honest account of the years that led up to her transition, weaving in many insights into the world of gender politics. The media industry comes across terribly and I wish things had progressed since, but I write this in the wake of two very transphobic opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. [PS: if you’re looking for stunning fiction by a trans writer, I recommend jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty which I borrowed from Yarra Libraries a few weeks before this memoir.]

6. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle) – Ecuador

This story collection came as a highly anticipated gift from Santiago-based translator Natascha Bruce for #WITMonth Book Swap, organised by Meytal Radzinski in August. When the book was first recommended to me I was slightly tentative, given the focus on domestic abuse, but I’m really glad I read it – mainly for how astonishingly powerful a writer Ampuero is. I had been struggling to engage fully with books at the time (14 weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown) and this collection shook me out of the stupor.

5. The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)Central African Republic

As it was only published in September, this was one of the very last books I read for my project – and it was, without a doubt, the most visually beautiful. It’s one of two children’s books featuring on my 2020 top ten (the other being Teaote and the Wall) and I think there’s something to be said for taking time away from screens/small font just to enjoy wonderful imagery and storytelling in fewer words. Narrated through the eyes of a young girl, the book follows a mother’s process towards getting pregnant and giving birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll. With these important words and expressive images, this book was totally worth the wait.

4. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)Macedonia

This was among the most immersive books I sank into this year. After hearing only good things, I read Dimkovska’s novel between Melbourne’s two lockdowns while I was on a weekend trip to the Dandenong Ranges and predictably got pretty lost in the pages! The story is told by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, who is venturing towards personal independence and romantic love – through communist Yugoslavia and further afield. A memorable book that has stayed with me.

3. The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)Suriname

This book was bound to be in my top three of the year – I was completely addicted to the story back in early March. We were still working in offices at that point, and I was reading it right through my lunchbreaks. In fact, my review reminded me that a colleague even comforted me one break when I was visibly upset by a plot twist! Set in the 18th century, it’s a tale of love and cruelty under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch Empire. I’ve recommended it to friends since and apparently they’ve been 100% absorbed by it too!

2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia AlvarezDominican Republic

When people ask me about my very favourite books since I began this blog, In The Time of Butterflies always springs to mind. The story reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas’) who symbolised hope and defiance during their country’s dictatorship from 1938 to 1994. To quote my own review, “my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it”. It was also a great chance to learn more about the women whose legacy sparked the 16 Days of Activism – a campaign that I focused on promoting in my human rights work.

1. Cantoras by Carolina de RobertisUruguay

There’s no way to put into words quite how much I loved this novel. Set at the time of the Uruguyan dictatorship in the 1970-80s, this is a breathtaking story about five women who together explore the ways we can love one another – from erotic passion to close friendship to unconditional familial love. The book not only made me laugh and cry, but also left me fundamentally wanting to become a better reader and writer. If this sounds hyperbolic, take a look at the book’s Goodreads page – I’m far from the only one who was profoundly affected by Cantoras!

Read my full list of reviews since mid-2018

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

Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya

Singing away the hunger - inside cover with photo of Mpho

a nutshell: these are stories from the extraordinary life of Lesotho elder and matriarch Nthunya, stretching from her birth in 1930 to the conversations that formed this book in the late 1990s

a line: “Maybe if there is one day enough for the hunger to stop, we can stop being so jealous of one another. If the jealousy is no more, we can begin to have dreams for one another. We can build something new”

an image: I liked how chapter 11 took its title from a motto in Lesotho – khotso, pula, nala, that is, peace, rain, prosperity

a thought: as so often throughout this project, I had reason to feel ashamed of my heritage – before independence, every man (no matter how poor) had to pay tax to the British or he was imprisoned; Nthunya’s family was so pleased when they no longer had to pay that they named a child born in the year of independence ‘Muso’, meaning Government

a fact: through her job as a domestic worker Nthunya became friends with American writer Kendall while she was studying on a Fulbright scholarship, and it was Kendall’s idea to document Nthunya’s life – this autobiography is a collaboration between the pair

want to read Singing Away the Hunger? visit here

Call Me by My Name: Poetry from Kosova in a Bilingual Albanian-English Edition by Flora Brovina (tr. Robert Elsie)

Bovina

a nutshell: Brovina’s lyrical poetry* powerfully bears witness to the violence and tension in Kosova across the late 20th century

a line: “Flowerpots hurtling through the air | Know nothing of the curfew” (‘The year 1981’)

an image: in ‘Exodus’, Brovina describes flowers walking hand in hand towards the sun while behind them grows flowerless grass

a thought: moving beyond the poems I had read, I was (i) shocked to discover Brovina was abducted in 1999 and accused of ‘terrorist activities’ under Article 136 of the Yugoslav Penal Code (ii) moved by her declaration during proceedings in which she said her objective had been to dedicate herself as a doctor, poet and woman to rights for women

a fact: in March and April 1981, Kosovo Albanians took to the streets in peaceful protest to demand more autonomy within the former Yugoslavia – this was met with tanks and troops

want to read some of Brovina’s poetry? visit here

[*note: I read a selection of the poems available online]

Le Journal de Maya by Coralie Frei

cat on cover of kindle, black and white

[note: I read this in the original French as it is not yet available in translation]

a nutshell: at times hilariously melodramatic and perfectly ‘feline’, this diary of a five-year-old Siamese cat will have many familiar scenes for cat lovers such as myself

a line: “this is my philosophy: Patience, virtue of cats”

an image: Frei renders even the simplest of acts beautifully, such as when joy gives Maya the wings to jump and land heavily on the sink

a thought: I thoroughly enjoyed reading these observations from a cat’s perspective – particularly the comment on how humans possess the art of complicating their lives (if only we took a leaf out of our cat’s book!)

a fact: Frei is the first Comorian woman to have written a novel, and has also written poetry

want to read Le Journal de Maya? visit here

‘Time’ by Dragana Tripković (tr. Peter Stonelake)

Dragana

a nutshell: exploring history and the present, this poem reflects on how nothing (and no one) lasts – not even the reader

a line: “Memories are the heaviest burden in that pigsty”

an image: rather than revolutionary and bloody, the pavements are concrete whores whose names change with the lust of rulers

a thought: I was thrilled to stumble on this poem through this Words Without Borders issue from March 2017 – a commendable effort to ensure Montenegrin women’s poetic voices are better heard

a fact: born in 1984 in Montenegro, Tripković is a poet and playwright who was one of the founders of the theatre group Alternative Theater Active Company (ATAK)

want to read ‘Time’? visit here

Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

yellow book against brick wall

a nutshell: in this moving autobiography Kassindja records how she fled Togo aged 17 ahead of kakia (female genital mutilation) and a forced marriage, ending up in the US where she spent a horrifying 16 months in detention

a line: “I’d been lost, misplaced, like luggage gone astray”

an image: Kassindja’s memories of prison guards mistreating detainees often evoked shocking scenes, particularly how she was ostracised under entirely false suspicion of TB

a thought: among the most poignant moments in this book, for me, were Kassindja’s reunions with other women detained while seeking asylum – her story is full of powerful friendships and unconditional love often in less likely corners, for instance the commitment of her cousin Rahuf whom she hadn’t seen since childhood

a fact: 97% of detained immigrants are people of colour even though 5 of the the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian – it isn’t that white-skinned illegal immigrants don’t come to the US, it’s that they don’t get put in detention

want to read Do They Hear You When You Cry? visit here

The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)

cover of magic doll with young girl illustrated and doll and chickens

a nutshell: narrated from the perspective of Adjoa, a young child, this exquisite book shares a deeply loving story of her mother’s journey towards pregnancy and birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll

a line: “Words do not have legs, but sometimes they can run fast!”

an image: one of my favourite parts was when the mother goes to the market to buy rice, millet, yams (see a glimpse below)

a thought: without a shadow of a doubt, this is the most beautiful book of all those I’ve read during my project – on its arrival I couldn’t stop turning each page to study the drawings and I loved how the story gently portrayed a struggle which many women face globally, often in silence

a fact: Yabouza closes with some fascinating insights into the geography and history behind the story – including her relationship with an Akua’ba doll that she came across in Bangui, the capital of her home country the Central African Republic, during childhood

want to read The Magic Doll? visit here

illustrations of women in a marketplace with many fruits and stunning patterns

‘In Which Language to Write’ by Odete Semedo (tr. Alejandro Aguilar)

a nutshell: alternating between languages, these poems reflect Semedo’s dislocating experience of living in both Portuguese and Guinea-Bissau Creole (‘Criollo’)

a line: “But what signs to leave | The grandchildren of this century?”

an image: the poet declares that she’ll leave a message on parchment in this Portuguese language that she misunderstands

a thought: I found it interesting how most of the verses are formed of questions (not statements) – such as whether the poet will talk in Portuguese despite it denying her art or muse, which led me to learn from Wiki that Guinea-Bissau Creole is the country’s language of informal literature

a fact: born in 1959, Semedo went on to assume prominent roles including Minister of National Education and Minister of Health

want to read ‘In Which Language to Write’? visit here