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

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

a nutshell: a sultry, atmospheric amble through Singapore from the 1970s to 2020, this novel ponders three troubled women: teenage Szu, her mother Amisa, and Szu’s friend Circe

a line: “I longed for a thick, soupy silence, calm walls behind which nothing hateful happened”

an image: Teo delivers many beautiful images but for me the stand-out was in fact for its hilarity – the hideously funny, highly anthropomorphised imagery of Circe’s mischievous tapeworm

a thought: conversations between Szu and Circe – both of whom are school outcasts – were weighted with very real teen angst, e.g. seeking out things to buy that’ll help them feel prettier, stronger, inoculated against the world

a fact: ‘ponti’ is short for Pontianak – a female vampiric ghost in Malay mythology (a role that Amisa, an actress of bygone days, plays in a trilogy of horror movies … and real life?)


want to read Ponti? visit here

Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela

a nutshell: folding back & forth between Sudan and Scotland (as well as the occasional glimpse of Egypt, England & the UAE) these 13 short stories unveil a little of how it feels to forge a new life far from one’s homeland

a line: “I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me?”

an image: in ‘The Museum’ a Scottish classmate invites Sudanese student Shadia along to an exhibition about Africa (alarmingly vague as that is), where she quickly realises nothing represented her or what she missed about home – it was all merely Europe’s version & clichés about Africa, old and cold

a thought: in several of her stories Aboulela presents relationships in which two people are at odds in approaching their cultural contexts; at one point in ‘The Ostrich’ Majdy tells his wife that if she covers her hair in London they will think he is forcing her to, while she recalls her past in Sudan as a “freer woman”

a fact: Aboulela, who grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen, won the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘The Museum’


want to read Elsewhere Home? visit here

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

a nutshell: a Parsee girl, Lenny, candidly narrates her 1940s Lahore childhood as it mutates from a life of carefree mischief & chatter among miscellaneous friends to Partition-provoked horrors & heartache

a line: “Don’t hog God!”

an image: a colonel retells the story of the Parsis’ migration to India from Persia during the Arab invasion in 600s AD, evoking how the Indian Prince noted their arrival with a full glass of milk as a polite signal of his aversion to outsiders & their potentially disturbing alien ways; the Parsee forefathers returned the milk with a teaspoon of sugar stirred in – an indication that they’d be absorbed harmoniously into the country and sweeten the lives of his subjects

a thought: privy to adults’ tense discussions of the inevitable split, Lenny begins to notice that everyone she knows suddenly goes from being just themselves to being ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, or ‘Christian’; tribalism is forced onto them – as the country breaks, so too does her own community fracture

a fact: India and Pakistan have been embroiled in numerous conflicts since 1947, and just today Pakistan has announced it shot down two Indian military jets; sadly the clashes depicted in this now 28-year-old novel show no signs of abating


want to read Cracking India (aka Ice Candy Man)? visit here

The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane (tr. David Brookshaw)

a nutshell: the first Mozambican woman to have a published novel, Chiziane weaves a captivating story of Rami’s bold struggle for dignity & solidarity among the rivals to her husband’s affection

a line“We women engender existence, but we ourselves don’t exist.”

an image: Rami recalls her grandfather’s habit of getting drunk and going off to take out his anger by playing his “drum”, that is, beating up his wife; such shocking images occur quite casually often in the novel

a thought: the narratorial voice sometimes adopts a quasi-philosophical tone and often made me pause to think about what has just been said, but Rami never pretends to have definitive answers to the complications & injustices of the overwhelmingly patriarchal society – spoiler: men don’t come off well in this novel, ever

a fact: among the wives are many distinctive personalities, but one thing that crops up repeatedly is Mozambique’s north-south cultural divide – one example (of many) is how the south keeps to a patrilineal system, while children in the north take their mother’s name


want to read The First Wife? visit here

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

a nutshell: Tambu, a young girl in a deprived Shona village, cautiously recounts her years of struggle against sexism & racism in the hope of gaining an education and opening up opportunities for her family within a society that presumes her failure

a line: “You have to keep moving … Getting involved in this and that, finding out one thing and another. Moving, all the time. Otherwise you get trapped” (– advice to Tambu from her semi-westernised cousin, Nyasha)

an image: it’s hard to watch as Tambu’s painstaking efforts to grow maize and earn her primary school fees are thwarted by sabotage & scorn – her brother’s active hostility to the prospect of her schooling is one of many reasons behind Tambu’s frank opening statement that she was “not sorry” at his death; we learn that he constantly gloried in the exclusion & oppression she had faced as a girl since birth

a thought: memory is an ongoing source of anxiety to Tambu, particularly around identity; her observations on how (i) her brother’s British missionary education erased his self-recognition and generated a warped sense of superiority (ii) her cousin’s English upbringing tore at her roots and left her deeply unsettled

a fact: the title is from an intro to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartha 1961 text on the trauma of colonisation, which contains the line: “The condition of native is a nervous condition”; Dangarembga does not shy away from exposing the insidious influence of British colonialism, which lurks behind scenes of subservience, conservatism, misogyny, linguistic alienation, trauma,  hypocrisy, injustice… (the ramifications are endless)

want to read Nervous Conditions? visit here

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

a nutshell: an esteemed professor (and former east Berliner) retires, only then to learn how myopic his world-view has been as he arbitrarily gets to know asylum-seekers housed nearby

a line: “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”

an image: a boy from Niger plays the piano for the first time, producing lopsided, harsh, stumbling, beautiful notes – Erpenbeck writes of how black and white keys tell stories here that have nothing at all to do with their colours

a thought: quite simply, I’d recommend this book to everyone I know

a fact: at one point Richard recalls reading a report in 1995 in which his colleague, a Stasi informant, had fed officials various details about Richard’s personal life and concluded that he was unsuitable for conspirational collaboration according to Directive 1/79, revealing the extent to which individuals in the GDR had to be on their guard – I then found out Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967


want to read Go, Went, Gone? visit here


Five favourite books of 2018

A few reflections on the books I most enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order!)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

One of the earliest novels I picked up for my project, Disoriental had me thoroughly gripped on a long bus journey through Slovenia in July. (I was so invested in what happened to Kimiâ that I didn’t even realise we had arrived at our destination.) Mirroring her main protagonist, the author is likewise the daughter of exiled Iranian intellectuals. The book’s themes in fact echoed through many other women writers’ works I’ve read since – ancestry, authority,  liberty, identity – but there was something acutely searing about Kimiâ’s story. 100% recommend.

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

It was around two hot chocolates in on an overcast August (!) afternoon that I realised how much of a personal connection I’d have with this novel-notes-autofiction-travelogue book (it really is as composite as all that). This came about in (i) the narrator’s recollections of moulding herself to fit with her brother’s autism (ii) her appetite for exploring the unknown (iii) her curiosity about language – Catalan to her felt reminiscent of what my Welsh language is to me. A unique, exquisite book.

Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (tr. Arunava Sinha)

I was whisked through this dreamy blur of a novel in the midst of our late summer heatwave in September. So addicted was I that I finished it on just the second day of reading, on a slightly-too-long lunch break, and could hardly wait to flick back through to write my mini-review. I loved how Bandyopadhyay emphasised the tensions of being both mother and writer by playing with the narrative voice, and Sinha’s translation from the original Bengali was genuinely breathtaking at some points.

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Shortly after reading this sharp, entertaining story collection in October I had the thrill of meeting the author at the Free Word Centre. Robayo is as insightful (yet self-deprecating!) in person as her writing suggests. Fish Soup probes corners of society that remain largely impenetrable. It’s unapologetic, astute – as well as humorous and devastating in turn.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft)

I knew as I was finishing this idiosyncratic book that I’d have to revisit the author’s writing after my project. I found Flights at times overwhelming (perhaps since I was reading it, unfittingly, on a sizzling beach on the Côte d’Azur) but dazzling in its seesawing between panoramic and microscopic outlooks. The union of Tokarczuk and Croft makes for prose that’s impossible to forget.