Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

Black Stone

a nutshell: described as one of the ‘foremothers of Pasifika poetry’, Molisa published this poetry collection in 1983 with black stone as a reference to vanua, i.e. Vanuatu’s black solidified lava base

a line: “Black Stone | bird of wealth | solid bedrock | dwelling of death” – from the titular poem ‘Black Stone’

an image: in ‘Victim of Foreign Abuse’ I was struck by Molisa’s description of natives stateless on their own land while exploiter colonisers milked her dry

a thought: my interpretation of Molisa’s poetry was helped greatly by Selina Tusitala Marsh’s article in Cordite – Marsh notes that, like black stone, Molisa has been a foundational creative & critical force in the formation of Vanuatu as a postcolonial nation

a fact: in 1977 Molisa became the first woman from Vanuatu to gain a university degree – a Bachelor of Arts at the University of the South Pacific

want to read Black Stone? visit here

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

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 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

Dalai Lama, My Son by Diki Tsering (ed. Khedroob Thondup)

a nutshell: this fascinating memoir of the 14th Dalai Lama’s mother was compiled by her grandson, who took up the mantle of his late sister Yangzom Doma’s work in recording their grandmother’s life history – born in 1901 to a peasant family, Tsering reminisced orally in Tibetan while her granddaughter wrote and translated her words into English

a line: “once I began to tell myself I was Diki Tsering, the name that was given to me on my wedding day and means ‘ocean of luck’, a kind of rebirth kindled all the forces of determination within me. I was no longer afraid, and I willingly challenged fate, determined not to be submerged by the tide”

an image: Tsering’s portrayals of the kyirong (ghost) that caused havoc in households across Tibet were unwaveringly spooky, from episodes of upturning sacks of peas to incidents of killing horses

a thought: to me, this book’s strongest elements were the intricate passages about traditional Tibetan customs – particularly around weddings, though unsurprisingly the status of women’s rights were abysmal in the early 20th century and Tsering describes toiling up to 21 hours a day for her in-laws’ household

a fact: I was shocked to read the author’s note that Tsering gave birth to 16 children yet only seven of them survived beyond infancy – at one point she notes that she always controlled herself when her children died since tears were “hail on a dead child’s face”

want to read Dalai Lama, My Son? 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

Flotsam & Jetsam by Jully Makini

a nutshell: this is the third poetry collection from Solomon Islander poet, writer and women’s rights activist Jully Makini

Jully

a line: “Our minds meet in the air” [‘Messages by Moonlight’]

an image: in ‘On the Rocks’, Makini depicts her clothes as heavily waterlogged with custom and culture, pulling her to the rocks of divorce

a thought: the poet has used her writing to convey powerful messages about women’s rights to people in remote areas of Solomon Islands, including issues considered taboo such as violence against women and children

a fact: born in Gizo, Makini began a career in writing after attending the Solomon Island Women Writers’ Workshop in 1980

want to read Flotsam & Jetsam? visit here

Withered Flowers by Stella Gitano (tr. Anthony Calderbank)

book cover orange in front of flower bouquet

the artwork on the cover and throughout the book is by Hussein Khalil

a nutshell: this stunningly unqiue short story collection shares glimpses of daily life in South Sudan, from scene of raids to breastfeeding, pickpocketing to thunderstorms

a line: “the real diseases were poverty and displacement and war”

an image: a mother tries to amputate the memory of a distressing period, which has grown like an unwanted limb on the body of her life – serving no purpose but to disfigure it

a thought: I was touched by the unconditional loyalty of a brother to his sister, both of who live in abject poverty; he sees her as a mermaid as the top and bottom of her body are different, since she is paralysed from the waist down since she had polio

a fact: in the author’s note, I learned that Gitano has a Bachelor of Pharmacology from Khartoum University and is passionate about helping to solve matters concerning women and children in South Sudan

want to read Withered Flowers? visit here

Droit de Cité: Être Femme au Burkina Faso by Monique Ilboudo

orange book with two women chatting on cover, plants in background

a nutshell: from FGM to contraception, gender-based violence to witchcraft, this rigorous book explores the status of women’s rights in Burkina Faso through the country’s colonial period and beyond

a line: “In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, women are fighting for the recognition that before their womanhood there is their humanity. It is in the name of this humanity, which they share with men, that women demand equal opportunities and rights.”

an image: in a moving quote from a victim of female genital mutilation, we’re asked how this could be a practice that represents the work of God, the figure who supposedly bestowed these very organs – how could these people carrying out the mutilation claim to know better than God?

a thought: in chapter 7, Ilboudo questions why traditional gender roles appear to be so fixed and notes the usual response, « il y a des tâches féminines et il y a des tâches masculines! » (there are female tasks and male tasks), which struck me as identical to former UK PM Theresa May’s remark “There are boy jobs and girl jobs, you see”; Ilboudo comments that “women’s work” never finishes

a fact: Ilboudo’s novel Si Loin de Ma Vie (So Distant From My Life) is currently being translated by Sierra Leonean-Ugandan writer & translator Yarri Kamara, who won the 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to complete her translation

want to read Droit de Cité? visit here

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

a nutshell: this is a stunningly moving novel that sees four adolescent Mauritians (Eve, Savita, Saadiq & Clélio) narrate their struggle for survival in an impoverished neighbourhood of Port Louis, the capital

a line: “I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else. A dimension where possibilities shimmer”

an image: at one point, Saad remarks that poverty is the harshest of jailers – a particularly resonant image given the trajectory of the story

a thought: I was interested in the moment when a teacher tells Saadiq, in three different languages, that he owes it to himself to succeed – afterwards I learned that most Mauritians are very multilingual, which makes Zuckerman’s beautiful translation (of French sprinkled with Creole phrases & unfamiliar syntax) all the more admirable

a fact: the novel was brought to the screen as The Children of Troumaron (2012), which is now firmly on my watchlist!

want to read Eve Out of her Ruins? visit here