Iran: gender politics

July 30, 2012

I was tempted to choose Nasrin Alavi’s We are Iran as my Iranian book. Compiled from a series of blogs translated from Farsi, this book – or blook – caused a great deal of controversy when it burst on to the literary scene in 2005, purporting to provide Western readers with an unprecedented survey of contemporary Iranian thought. However, the book had had a fair bit of attention in the media and something about the way the texts in it had been curated for the Western eye made me hesitate – probably entirely unfairly, given that arguably every text in translation has been selected and prepared with English-language readers in mind.

Then I heard about Shahrnush Parsipur. Something of a trailblazer throughout her life, from being one of the first female students at the University of Tehran through to becoming one of Iran’s best-known and most innovative novelists, Parsipur captured my imagination. Her epic novel Touba and the Meaning of Night, which was published in 1989 just three years after Parsipur’s release from prison, caused controversy for its exploration of religion and gender power relations, as well as its departure from the literary style common before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It finally became available in English translation in 2006, the year after the much-vaunted We are Iran. I was going to have to take a look.

Spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel presents an alternative reading of the history of Iran through the eyes of one woman, Touba, who grows up, marries, divorces, remarries and grows old during the course of it. As dynasties rise and fall and the world moves towards its bloodiest war, Touba embarks on a struggle for supremacy in her own life, finding herself drawn towards Sufism as a possible escape from the oppressive rules and judgments of a society that increasingly forces her to be a prisoner within the walls of her house.

Right from the opening passage, in which a scantily clad teenage Touba cleans the courtyard pool under the disapproving gaze of her tenant’s wives, Parsipur sets out the limitations imposed on women as a central theme in the book. Sometimes, as when Touba’s father reflects that bringing strange women into his home to work might be dangerous because ‘they might participate in some perverse activities with one another’, this is done with wry humour.

More usually, however, it has a much darker side. This initially reveals itself when 14-year-old Touba narrowly escapes a beating from her first husband for going out for a walk alone and later becomes painfully obvious in the story of the raped girl who, on revealing she is pregnant, is killed by her uncle Mirza Abuzar and buried under a tree in the garden. Touba’s reaction to the news is telling:

‘She was filled with the sense of guilt. She wanted to ask Mirza Abuzar why he had not discussed the matter with her. Then she thought, if he had mentioned it, would she have done anything? A living girl who has a bastard child in her is hateful and defiled. The same girl, however, if she is killed like this, will be chosen to be among the Pure Ones. She was realizing that she probably would have done nothing for the girl, or could have done nothing. She tried to put herself in Mirza Abuzar’s place. She truly felt sorry for him.’

Parsipur’s ability to think her way inside her characters like this means that the narrative is far from a one-sided polemic on the oppression of women. Even the most difficult of characters, such as the sinister Prince Gil and the sullen child Ismael who harbours murderous intentions towards Touba because of his anger at the loss of his parents, are presented as rounded and complex individuals with insight and thought processes that often surprise.

This multiplicity of perspectives and Parsipur’s use of elements of magic in her storytelling, give the narrative a sense of plurality that cuts across time and space. Often, in the embedded stories and mini-tales that Parsipur weaves into the novel, it seems as though the author is digging back into the past to gain the depth and distance that will allow her to tell contemporary truths.

The pacing is strange at times, partly due to the sheer scope of the story, which contains so many characters that the editors saw fit to list them all at the start of the book. As a result, the narrative moves in fits and starts, lingering over details only to jerk forward, sometimes skimming over incidents that seem to deserve more attention. This can be frustrating and leaves you glancing back over your shoulder now and then as a major character whizzes past into oblivion, like the stop you expected to get off at the moment you realise you’ve unintentionally caught the fast train.

On the whole, though, there can be no question that this is a towering achievement. Packed with insights, historical detail and rich compelling storytelling, the translation of this epic work opens up a world quite different from the one many English-readers will be used to. A rich addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tuba va ma’na-yt shab) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006)

This book was recommended to me by Justin at the African Books Collective when I dropped by the their stall at the London Book Fair back in April. I’m glad he brought it to my attention as the subject matter and cover – which makes the book look a bit like a self-help manual – mean that I probably would never have chosen it on my own.

Written by Dr Mardia Stone, a Liberian obstetrician and gynaecologist living in the US, the book is an account of her homosexual half-brother Konkai’s diagnosis and struggle with AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. Charting her sibling’s decline and death back in the days when very little was known about the killer disease, Stone confronts her and her family’s fears and prejudices, weaving in and challenging the attitudes to homosexuality that she and her relatives grew up with in Liberia and discovering a capacity for love that breaks down social barriers.

Stone’s unflinching honesty and direct style make the book. From reflections on death and mortality through to confessions of her and her other siblings’ tendency to laugh at their brother and sweep his sexuality ‘under the carpet’ in the years before his illness, the book is fearlessly frank as well as touching and tender. At times this can make for shocking reading, as when Stone writes about Konkai’s deliberate promiscuity without protection after his diagnosis when his anger and pain were at their peak.

Stone’s frankness  also paves the way for some refreshingly open discussion of the approach to homosexuality in many African countries: ‘You will sometimes hear African people say that Africans, for the most part, are not homosexuals because culturally or traditionally most Africans know nothing about homosexuality. [...] It is still taboo in many countries. Yet, I have seen a number of African homosexuals living “in” and “out of the closet” in Africa,’ she writes. Indeed, as Stone explains in her preface and again at the end of the book, a large part of her motivation for writing her brother’s story came from a sense that, because of this reticence, ‘Africans themselves are not writing their stories, everybody else is writing for them’.

In addition to its personal and cultural discussions, the book is also a valuable documentation of a key moment in the history of modern medicine. Having been a hospital doctor in New York during the eighties, Stone writes powerfully about the fear she and her colleagues felt when they first encountered patients with the newly discovered HIV/AIDS virus. Her account of her first exposure to a pregnant woman with the disease is particularly compelling:

‘The woman was immediately isolated. A stack of disposable gowns, masks, shoe covers, gloves and hats were placed in front of her room door. No one dared to enter without being properly suited. We looked like astronauts ready to enter a space shuttle every time we entered her room wearing our protective biohazard suits. Some of us even doubled [sic] gowned, double booted and wore triple hats and masks. We were that fearful. None of us wanted to go into her room alone so we always arranged to see her in pairs or as a group.

‘In the course of caring for our patient, I had to draw her blood. The very thought of this routine procedure was terrifying. [...] Terrified, I searched for a fellow resident to assist me, hold my hand and give me encouragement. No one agreed and no one was ‘available’. Even the nurses seemed to be on the snail track to Timbuktu, and because I had a heavy load of over twenty patients that day, I put on my brave face and with a brave heart entered the room alone, in my space suit.

[...]

‘”You people make me feel like a demon,” [the woman] said in response. “Why do you treat me this way? I may have AIDS, but I am a human being. I feel bad enough already and I am hurting because I may lose my baby. Is there no compassion left in any of you?”‘

Occasionally, the directness of the writing leads to assertions that some readers will find uncomfortable. In particular, the discussion of Konkai’s early abuse as a child by a young adult in Liberia and the role this may have played in the development of his identity and sexuality, while no doubt worth exploring, is muddy and at points seems to conflate homosexuality and paedophilia. However, as this seems at odds with Stone’s views elsewhere in the book, it’s possible that this is down to slightly awkward expression of these ideas rather than deliberate intention – it’s interesting to note the disclaimer at the beginning that states the work ‘is not a pronouncement on any debates about the nature of sexual orientation’. The closing sections of the book could also have done with some cutting.

All the same, this does not detract from the fact that this is a brave and often deeply moving book. Few would argue with Stone’s central discovery in the midst of Konkai’s cruel deterioration that ‘compassion is the key to our human experience’. A welcome voice from a part of the world where such subjects rarely get put into words.

Konkai: Living between two worlds by Mardia Stone (Cotton Tree Press, 2011)

Nauru: small triumphs

July 26, 2012

Every so often on a literary adventure like this, you come across someone who, as if with the wave of a magic wand, is able to solve several of your dilemmas at a single stroke. Thomas Slone is one such written-word wizard. As owner of US-based Masalai Press, a company specialising in work from Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southeast Asia, he knows a thing or two about books from some of the most remote and least published nations in the world – and has a store of rare and out-of-print texts that simply aren’t available through many other sources.

I was put on Slone’s trail by the team at the University of Papua New Guinea Press, which in turn was recommended to me by Kate, who kindly responded to my halfway appeal for help with countries I have yet to find books for. After months of hassling people about Pacific Island literature, it seemed almost too good to be true when Slone not only came back with a list of recommendations for titles from several nations in the region, but also looked out some works that I could buy right there and then, among then Stories from Nauru.

Perhaps fittingly for a book from the world’s smallest island country, Stories from Nauru is a tiny work. Weighing in at just 20 pages, it looks at first glance as though it might sit more comfortably in pamphlet territory rather than trying to fight its corner among volumes ten times its size. The books dated cover design and yellowed pages also make it seem as though it hails from another era altogether, rather than from 1996, the year my edition came out.

The book’s slight appearance, however, belies the scale of its ambitions. Published off the back of a University of the South Pacific workshop on Nauru in 1990, ‘organised so that a conscious effort would be made to encourage Nauruans to write and to record their folklore in the attempt to build up a Nauruan literature’, as the Foreword explains, the collection has grand aims.

However, unlike other short story anthologies I’ve seen from the region, this book is not merely an attempt to document the island’s traditional tales. Instead, it is a collection of fresh creative writing, informed by but not confined to folklore. While some stories, such as Ben Bam Solomon’s ‘The Origins of Nauru’, which features three giants, clearly draw on local mythology, others like Jerielyn Jeremiah’s ‘The New School’, a tale of one girl’s experience of prejudice at  boarding school, deal with the practicalities of modern-day life.

Perhaps most startling of all is ‘A Plea for Help’ by Elmina Quadina, which is about a 30-year-old woman who is losing her hearing. It is impossible to know whether Quadina and her narrator are one and the same, but the piece’s plain language and simple power act like a hand reaching out from the text to draw you into the bleak existence facing disabled people in this remote corner of the world in a way that feels almost too personal to be anything other than real:

‘People, including my colleagues, think I’m stupid. They think I’m just a silly, stupid creature because I cannot hear properly. I don’t blame them for thinking of me in this way because I know it’s hard to talk to someone who is deaf. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a naughty little child who does not wish to listen. But it’s not like this with me because I have my brain and I wish to listen, hear and learn, But how? There is no-hearing [sic] aid or any other aid to help me.’

What the collection does have in common with other texts I’ve seen from the region is a recurring concern about the erosion of traditional culture and the encroachment of the Western world. Indeed, there is a slightly panicky air about some of the pieces, such as Roy Degoregore’s ‘Nauru: The Way it Used to Be’, which feels like a kind of literary Kim’s Game in which he tries to get down everything he remembers about the old customs before time runs out. Other stories, like Lucia Bill’s striking ‘Egade’ have a more wistful, haunting air.

As you would expect from stories produced in workshop conditions, a few of the pieces lack polish and there is a fragmentary, unfinished quality to some of the writing. However, the overall effect of this varied and surprising collection is impressive. The storytelling is, on the whole, fresh and immediate – far from the dry and earnest exercise in cultural preservation the Foreword might lead you to expect. I’d be very interested to know whether the book spawned further such workshops as Nauru clearly boasts some good writers among its 9,378 residents.

Stories from Nauru by Ben Bam Solomon et al (The University of the South Pacific Nauru Centre & Institute of Pacific Studies, 1996)

Montenegro: home truths

July 24, 2012

Around the end  of May, I was mooching about on Twitter trying to drum up leads for some of the gaps on The List when @markbooks swooped in to recommend The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis for the small South-eastern European country of Montenegro. @stujallen had just read it, he said.

I was in the process of thanking them when @MissCathO joined the party to say that, on the subject of Montenegrin literature, she was hoping to get an English translation of fiction by @ksenijapopovic shortly. Soon after that @ksenijapopovic popped up with the news that her novel was being proofread as we spoke and should be ready in ebook form in the next few weeks. I asked  her to keep me posted and she duly did, tweeting at me excitedly on 16 July to say that A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf was now available on Amazon.

In the meantime, I’d done a bit of research on Ksenija Popovic (or Xenia Popovich as her name is rendered on the e-cover of the English version). It turns out she’s something of a Montenegrin literary star. Her first novel was a bestseller, won an award (the name of which I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory translation for) and was made into a film. She also did the translation of her latest book, the only one so far available in English, herself. Sorry though I was to have to bypass Andrej Nikolaidis, about whom I’d heard several good things, I was going to have to check this out.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf unpicks the backstory of Klara, a classical pianist turned housewife, who at the age of 30 is already ‘old and tired’. Taking us back through her tough childhood in an orphanage, or ‘home for mistakes’, in an anonymous semi-American, semi-European town, the narrative explores the horrific events that led to the collapse of her relationship with her first love, Vuk, and her subsequent lonely marriage.

The wit and cynicism of Klara’s voice is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. ‘Born bitter, unwilling to indulge in childish deceptions’, she looks the calculating mechanisms of the children’s home, where wards of the state are ‘spared the pressure of attending high school’ by being sent to work in the neighbouring factory, full in the face. The early passage where Klara introduces us to the staff’s manipulative method of getting visitors to donate money pulls no punches:

‘The director’s impeccable system, which she liked to call her only child in a sea of other people’s children, triumphed whenever one of us pulled the lady by the sleeve and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you my mommy?”‘

The robustness of the storytelling means that the narrative is able to take the weight of the traumatic events that later crowd in upon it. While the gear change into graphic descriptions of abuse may be too abrupt and shocking for some readers’ tastes, Popovic’s fearlessness and frankness carry it through. Her insight into the way extreme experience warps the dynamics of human relationships is particularly impressive, and I found myself repeatedly typing ‘great’ and ‘wow’ into the notes on my Kindle as I read her account of the mental labyrinth Klara wanders through in the latter half of the novel.

The secret of the book’s success is that, unlike most authors writing about under 18s, Popovic is not an adult writing about children but a person writing about people. Her work is entirely free of that coyness writers usually seem to feel about children’s emotions, meaning that love, fear, anger, sexual attraction and hatred are every bit as raw, present, shocking and enthralling for her young characters as for adults, if not more so.

One or two strange words like ‘pianism’ and ‘snobbism’ have slipped through the translation net. These stick out, however, because the rest of the work flows so well – helped no doubt by the years Popovic spent in the US as a child. In fact, as the book goes on, you begin to wonder if they aren’t meant to be coinages by Klara, so atypical are they of the rest of the text.

But this is splitting hairs. As a whole, this is an outstanding piece of work: raw and fearless. If anyone needs proof of the value of authors being able to self-publish to ebook, it’s right here in this novel: the second self-published translation of a work published commercially in another language I’ve read this year. A fantastic achievement. More please.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf by Xenia Popovich, translated from the Montenegrin by Xenia Popovich (Xenia Popovich, 2012)

Namibia: marital ties

July 21, 2012

I started reading this book while sitting in a television studio waiting to be interviewed about A Year of Reading the World by Isha Sesay for her NewsCenter show on CNN International. I was quite nervous and sitting at the newsreader’s desk with lots of cameras and screens with my face on them leering down at me wasn’t the most relaxing of places to be reading, so it’s a testament to the power of Neshani Andreas’s storytelling that The Purple Violet of Oshaantu managed to draw me in all the same.

Published in 2001 and already considered a classic, the novel follows Mee Ali and her friend Kauna as they struggle against the patriarchal structures of society in rural northern Namibia. When Kauna’s abusive and unfaithful husband Shange dies suddenly, the women feel the full force of the way society is weighted against them and it is left to Mee Ali to help her companion rise above the waves of prejudice, avarice and cruelty that threaten to wash her away.

Andreas excels at capturing the little details that tell us everything we need to know about a character’s emotional state. From the incongruous reactions that show mental turbulence, as when Kauna laughs hysterically in the wake of discovering her husband’s body, to the flashes of insight that strike through everyday conversations, shedding light on secrets and fears, the narrative is full of riches. I particularly liked Mee Ali’s description of Kauna’s in-laws’ responses to her sensible suggestion that they should wait for doctors to determine the cause of Shange’s death instead of jumping to conclusions: ‘They looked at me as if I had another head, that of a cow perhaps. Did I look foolish?’

These insights make Andreas’s portrayal of the injustice of women’s lot very powerful. Interspersing the narrative with accounts of the extreme suffering inflicted on wives in the community, such as the public breakdown of Mee Namutenya when her husband takes a second wife and Mee Sara’s persecution by witch doctors on the death of her husband, Andreas presents a controlled and compelling argument against the practices that have so long been justified as tradition. Perhaps the most memorable of these concerns Mee Ali’s indignant reaction to the way her own happy marriage to Michael is viewed by her community:

‘Now this. “Oh, he doesn’t beat you? You are lucky.” I am really tired of it all. Yes, Michael is a good man and I am grateful for that. I just don’t know what people want me to do. Kneel down at his feet and say, “Thank you, Michael, for marrying a low class”? I am not lucky. I simply do not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal.’

Yet although the village women police and persecute each other through gossip, there is nevertheless an underlying sense of community and mutual support that erupts to the surface now and then with joyous results. Chief among these moments is the time when Kauna screws up her courage to ask her neighbours to come and do okakungungu [join together to work on her land] so that she can get her field dug before the rains come. The subsequent scene when the women respond to her call is incredibly moving.

Occasionally the time shifts can be a little disorientating. In addition, the long chunks of dialogue sometimes make the narrative feel more like a play script than a novel.

As a whole though, this is a powerful and important work by a writer who deserves her place among Africa’s literary greats. It certainly helped to calm my nerves.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas (Heinemann, 2001)

France: a fine line

July 19, 2012

I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.

The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?

Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.

Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.

The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:

‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’

The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.

Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.

Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)

There isn’t much Yemeni prose for curious English-language readers to get their hands on. At first I assumed this was because of a lack of translation – and that is part of it – but after some time researching Yemeni writers and emailing addresses for bookshops and writers associations that, without exception, bounced my messages straight back at me, I realised that there might be a bit more to it.

In fact, the country’s political history, which saw the rigid regime of the Imams give way to decades of war and unrest in the latter half of the 20th century, means that fiction writing and publishing in the country has been pretty thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there have been some pioneers and of these Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, whose 1984 novel The Hostage was chosen as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, has to be one of the most celebrated.

Set during the run up to a brief revolution in the 1940s, the book portrays the struggles of a young boy who is taken hostage because of his father’s political activities and is sent to work as a duwaydar [attendant] in the Governor’s palace. Required to service every whim and desire of the men and women of the household, the boy learns the meaning of powerlessness and subjection. Yet, as his political awareness grows and society outside the palace gates begins to stir, his experiences give him the insight he needs to begin to imagine another future.

Interlink Books, the company behind the Emerging Voices series in which this translation was published, were clearly worried that the historical and social context of the novel might be challenging for Western readers. Not only did they include a preface explaining the reasons for translating the book in this edition, but they also added two introductions and footnotes to the Arabic terms in the text.

They needn’t have been so diligent because Dammaj’s skill as a storyteller is more than equal to the task of carrying his readers over his narrative’s sometimes challenging terrain. Indeed, the sense that we are getting a glimpse into the closed, privileged and long-lost world of palace life under the Imams’ rule is one of the novel’s great strengths. This is helped by the protagonist’s position as an outsider, which means that we discover the world with him and watch as he compares the formal processes of power with the way things are done in his own largely illiterate home community.

However, perhaps the most startling arena of discovery is that of the palace’s sexual politics. Women in this closed world are extremely predatory towards the young pubescent boys serving them, as are the soldiers manning the gates, leaving the hero feeling ‘like a rare bird [...] put in a golden cage for life’. During a drive back from a state visit, the women’s possessiveness even spills over into a physical fight, with the boy tossed between them like a doll:

‘Then suddenly, she got hold of me and threw me towards them, so that I lost my balance and fell in some of their laps.

‘”You’re simply jealous of me,” she said, “because he’s sitting next to me. Am I jealous of you because he’s in your beds every night?”‘

Humiliation doesn’t get much deeper than this. However for Dammaj’s hero, the extreme pressure of being possessed and passed around in this way is just the force he needs to sublimate his powerlessness into dignity and develop his own desire for self-determination.

This growth of the protagonist from a naive child into a humane and thoughtful young man is what transforms the narrative from an intriguing account of life in a particular period into a timeless, classic tale. Dummaj shows us the human heart beating beneath the strange clothes and outmoded customs. Powerful writing indeed.

The Hostage (Ar-Rahina) by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 1994)

The tiny Kingdom of Swaziland doesn’t sound too promising when you’re on the hunt for world literature. According to the CIA World Factbook, it has the globe’s lowest life expectancy, with those born in 2011 only predicted to live an average of 31.88 years – just a year older than I am now.

Given such a bleak backdrop, I assumed any story I did find would be pretty solemn. So when The Modern Novel recommended Sarah Mkhonza’s self-published memoir Weeding the Flowerbeds, I was in for a surprise.

Recalling Mkhonza’s time boarding at Manzini Nazarene High School in the seventies, the book reflects on life in southern Africa in the years after Swaziland declared independence from British rule. With Apartheid and racism enshrined in the statutes of all the region’s nations, there is much for young girls Bulelo (Mkhonza), Sisile and Makhosi to struggle against, but there is also a wind of change blowing that promises more opportunities and possibilities for young women than ever before.

As in John Saunana’s novel The Alternative (my Solomon Islands book), boarding school with its British structures and legacy is a microcosm of the struggles the nation faces as it tries to shape an identity independent of its colonial past.  From the prejudice against Zulu and the very anglocentric reading lists – including Shakespeare, the Victorian classics and The Flies of the Lord as one confused English teacher calls the book he has to give lessons on – to the continued religious efforts to teach the ‘saga of the cross [...] to the children of Swazis who still believed in muti [magic] and sangomas’, Bulelo is surrounded by the attitudes of the old regime.

Mkhonza treats this with a great deal of humour, recalling how she and her classmates ‘wondered what the United States of England was like’. She is also refreshingly honest about the way she and her fellow students ‘used the power of the underdog toward white people’, bamboozling their British-born teachers with dialect and slang. This is nevertheless tempered with a great deal of affection for many of the staff and the opportunities her education gave her: ‘This is why you are reading this book,’ she writes at one point. ‘We had some very good teachers who were dedicated to teaching us’.

The memoir really comes alive in the passages where Mkhonza recalls her female friends and the challenges facing them as young women, a subject to which Mkhonza has devoted much of her adult life and because of which she was forced to leave Swaziland in 2003. Among the more serious accounts of the mistreatment of women in wider society, there are some wonderfully funny stories of the sisterly bond developed over boyfriends, whose letters came secretly to PO Box 315 Manzini (I wonder what would happen if we wrote to that address now?), and the covert reading of Drum magazine. Indeed, the brusque problem-page advice of Agony Aunt Dolly is too good not to share:

‘You are stupid if you think the man loves you and you are still in high school. You are stupid when you think an older man can love you better than his wife. If you have sex with him, you will become pregnant, and that will be the end of you.’

Powerful episodes aside, though, the narrative often lacks tension and a throughline to drive it forward. At times, particularly when Mkhonza reflects on the boredom that characterises much of school life, we can feel as though we are plodding with Bulelo from class to class and, like her, begin to wonder exactly why we are bothering. There are also some quirks with the writing style, which skips between the past and present tenses in a way that is too erratic for it to be deliberate.

Many of these problems could have been ironed out with the help of a sensitive editor, something that Mkhonza, as a self-publishing writer, was probably obliged to do without. As it stands, though, this is an intriguing and witty, if inconsistent, account of how a significant moment in Swaziland’s history played out in young lives. It is full of hope, and worth reading for Aunt Dolly alone.

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza (Sarah Mkhonza, Xlibris, 2009)

Barbados: rum and water

July 13, 2012

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun [...] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)

Chart Korbjitti caught my eye on Wikipedia’s list of Thai writers. Not only is he a two-time recipient of the Southeast Asian Write award, but he was named a National Artist in Literature in 2004. He made his career through self-publishing his work and is one of that hardy breed of full-time writers who commit to doing nothing but waking up and spinning stories all day long. I also like his glasses.

This is fitting because, as it turns out, vision is a central theme in the book I chose to read. Set in a theatre, the novel records the reactions of a 62-year-old filmmaker as he watches a show dubbed ‘the most boring play of the year’ by Thailand’s drama critics. As the action unfolds in an old people’s home, the protagonist finds himself drawn into the slow drift of events, pausing now and again to imagine how he would represent the action if he were portraying it in a film. Distanced from his everyday routine by the strange suspension of reality the theatre affords, he reflects on the sad events of his life and in the end takes a great deal from the drama playing out in front of him – although whether what he infers is what the play’s director intends remains a mystery.

The novel is one of the most structurally innovative books I’ve read. Jumping between the action on stage, the protagonist’s interior monologue and his imagined shooting script for the scenes he witnesses, the narrative tests the limits of the written medium while exploring the visual arena of stage and screen. The filmmaker’s watching and commenting makes even the most mundane of onstage actions – washing, feeding and entertaining the frail and largely bedridden inhabitants of the home – come alive.

This is particularly true when what he sees encourages the protagonist (if that is the right word for someone who is essentially watching the actions of others) to look for parallels in his own experience. These reflections range from pettish and sometimes funny reflections on the selling of lottery tickets through social issues such as child labour to admissions of his own fears and loneliness. Indeed, the narrative is frequently startling in its stark reflections on ‘the pain of being left alone in the world’. ‘To tell you frankly, when I see something like this, I’m scared. Scared to have to lie on a bed like this. I’m thinking of my wife –’ says the narrator, striking a balance of honesty and reticence that means the narrative never tips over into wallowing.

Yet Korbjitti pushes the boundaries even beyond the trope of a man sitting in an auditorium watching a play. As the show progresses, we find the thoughts of the characters on stage beginning to spill into the narrative, forcing us to question where these recollections and preoccupations come from. In addition, the nagging smell of urine that irritates the filmmaker throughout the show invites us to wonder exactly where the boundary between the real and the imagined lies.

The result is a masterful dissection of the experience of consuming art. At times, I had to stop myself from turning round to see Korbjitti watching me read, constructing a story about a blogger reading a book about a filmmaker watching a play. But perhaps he’s already written it…

Time: a Thai Novel by Chart Korbjitti, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thai Fiction Publishing, 2010)

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