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

Two Poems by Marie-Léontine Tsibinda (tr. Nancy Naomi Carlson)

a nutshell: as a pair, these evocative poems juxtapose Tsibinda’s memories of village life in Congo-Brazzaville – both the beauty and the brutality

a line: “Do you feel how the daytime air vibrates | and feel the shudder of lush land | when the rushing train rattles the silence of mountains?” – ‘The Village’ (the first poem)

an image: in the second (darker) poem, ‘In My Village’, Tsibinda portrays the more sinister elements of village life, for instance how each brother becomes an enemy, each laugh an arrow, each word a shoal – these images are particularly powerful with the knowledge that Tsibinda fled her homeland in 1997 due to ongoing conflict and was ultimately resettled in Canada with her family

a thought: I enjoyed reading the translator’s note in which Carlson describes her process of first creating sound maps to highlight Tsibinda’s patterns of assonance, alliteration & rhythm to try to honour the music infused in these lyrical poems, e.g. imitating the pattern of repeated sibilants around snakes (“hirsutes où se tissent des serpents”) with “thickets where snakes intertwist”

a fact: until reading these poems I’d never heard of a ‘pirogue’ and had to look it up – Merriam-Webster records the same definition as for the word ‘dugout’, that is, a boat made by hollowing out a large log

want to read Two Poems? visit here

The Dancer from Khiva by Bibish (tr. Andrew Bromfield)

cover on kindle (back of plaited hair) with fern in background

a nutshell: written while Bibish was a street vendor in a province of Moscow, this unique & spirited memoir records an Uzbek woman’s determination to live independently despite all odds

a line: “The state is like an X-ray machine, it looks right through me”

an image: with the moon in Central Asia shining brightly at night, Bibish recalls how she used to read a wide range of books while everyone slept (despite her mother’s scolding)

a thought: the author vividly documents her struggles to earn enough money to provide food for her sons, such as her raw despair at being unable to buy bread to ease their hunger as late as 10pm – this evoked horrible parallels with the current situation in my homeland, the UK, where parliamentarians refused to allow meals to be given to children needing food over the upcoming holidays during the pandemic

a fact: Bibish shared many fascinating details about her childhood in a kishlak, and particularly moving was her account of the forced labour & production quota system that pervaded Uzbekistan’s cotton fields – when I googled this I was horrified to learn from HRW that it continues to this day

want to read The Dancer from Khiva? visit here

‘From where the voice is born’ by Carmen Naranjo

a nutshell: this fifty-line poem by Costa Rican poet & novelist Carmen Naranjo is a beautiful reflection on voice, silence, presence and absence

a line: “I have goodbyes in my hair | and forgetfulness in the eyes”

an image: towards the end, the poet describes being in front of the stars opposing a challenge to be brilliant

a thought: Naranjo’s line about a voice naked of ‘yes’s and ‘no’s made me think about my own commitment to balancing my ‘yes’s and ‘no’s – for so long I have said yes to everything and finally I’ve come to realise the sense in knowing how not to

a fact: born in 1928, Naranjo enrolled in a writers workshop following her return to Costa Rica in 1964 (having worked for the UN in Venezuela) and soon began publishing both poetry & prose

want to read more of Naranjo’s poetry? visit here

The Tram Journey by Milena Ercolani (tr. Pasquale Iannone and Robyn Marsack)

a nutshell: this quiet, gentle poem draws parallels between the course of life and a journey on a tram

a line: “Our faces | masked our uncertainties”

an image: slow steps, a shaking hand, his gaze lit by nostalgia – the fellow passenger’s old age emerges only gradually through hints

a thought: I interpreted this poem as a mediation on the loss of a loved one, perhaps a father or grandfather, particularly through how the onlooker saw herself in his face

a fact: born in 1963, Sammarinese poet and novelist Ercolani is President of the Sammarina Cultural Association – promoting the artistic work of San Marino and the surrounding region

want to read The Tram Journey? visit here

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