Jordan: winds of change

December 27, 2012

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Hearing that my friend Andrew was off to the Middle East for a choir tour in October, I decided to recruit him to find my Jordanian book. The schedule for the tour was tight, but a brief window in Amman (not to be confused with Oman as I originally wrote) gave him the opportunity to slip off in search of a translation of a story.

Andrew had heard from members of a local choir, with whom his group Ishirini was collaborating, about a bookshop with a good English-language offering that stayed open late into the night. Complete with a built-in coffee shop, it was something of a hang-out for bibliophiles and so he made his way there.

However, on arriving, Andrew discovered there was a hitch: it being Eid, deliveries to the normally well-stocked shop were running late and pickings were slim. Nevertheless, there was one possibility in the shape of Jordanian-born Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. At more than 600 pages long, the book would certainly keep me busy, but, in the absence of many other options, it seemed wise to nab it. Handing over his dinars, Andrew bagged a copy and hurried off to his next rehearsal.

Set in a fictional Gulf state in the 1930s, the novel, which is banned in several Arab countries, explores the impact of the discovery of oil on a small oasis town. When American prospectors arrive in the region, bringing with them a host of machines, practices and mores unknown to the local Arab population, the residents find the centuries-old rhythms of their lives disrupted. Faced with technological change that is set to alter their mental, emotional and physical landscape forever, the people are left with two options: adapt or die.

On the surface, this is a novel about culture clashes. In the Arabs’ fear and wonderment at the Americans’ mechanised horses and brazen attitudes to nudity, and the prospectors’ obsession with photographing and documenting every mundane local activity they can gain access to – not to mention the stark contrast between Arab Harran and American Harran (the seaside town built to house the oil workers) – we see the sparks that fly as East and West, ancient and modern, and spiritual and secular collide head on.

This collision gives rise to moments of great humour. The terrified Emir’s first boat trip, for example, and his amazement at the voices coming out of the radio are hilarious, while the Americans’ simplistic pronouncements on the Arabs, to whom they intend to give employment rights ‘as if they were regular people’, raise many a wry smile.

Frequently, however, there is a great deal of pain mixed in with this. From the employee questionnaire – which mortifies Ibrahim with its impertinent queries about female relatives – to the sad demise of the Desert Travel Office under the wheels of shiny, new Western trucks, there is much lost in this exchange and many personal tragedies unfold along the way. Perhaps most painful of all is the death of Mizban in a diving accident while on company business, an event that points up the difference of priorities between the two groups obliged to live and work together on the same patch of land.

What episodes like this demonstrate is that the gulf between the characters is not so much one of culture as one of valuing things differently. What to the Americans is a harsh, hostile environment that they must master and subdue with their air-con and swimming pools for the sake of harvesting oil is home to the Arabs – a place ingrained in their psyches, the desert winds of which blow through the images they use to express themselves and the sun of which has hardened their very sense of identity. While the Americans can uproot trees and demolish houses ‘without pausing and without reflection’ because they see them only as worthless objects standing in the way of their prize, the Arabs suffer the transformation as a sort of physical violence that the new arrivals cannot begin to comprehend. As Dabbasi puts it: ‘To someone not of this land and this town, all land is the same – it’s just land’. And that is the fundamental difference.

At once expansive and deeply personal, this novel is a masterful presentation of the way misunderstandings and resentment spring up and fruit into bitterness and enmity. At times reading like a vast collection of interlinked short stories, it weaves together the triumphs and sadness of many individual lives to make a compelling and poignant whole. A marvel.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Vintage International, 1989)

Madagascar: over to you

December 21, 2012

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‘You should easily be able to find something from Madagascar,’ said a friend a few months ago. ‘It’s massive.’

Massive though the world’s fourth-largest island nation may be, its literature is not widely translated. In fact, there’s so little out there that, seeing the gap on my list, Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large at And Other Stories, offered to lend a hand. She sent me her translation of a short story, ‘Za’, by Francophone Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana. The story on its own would not be enough – it had developed into a novel but this was not yet translated; however, she would contact Raharimanana to see what else he could suggest.

The next day Lewis was back with the news that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English. Given what I’ve found to be the case with several other Francophone and Lusophone African countries this year, this didn’t surprise me a great deal, but Sophie was shocked – so much so that she’s determined to do something about it and is keen to hear about Malagasy novels that might be suitable for And Other Stories to translate and publish (please put your suggestions at the bottom of this post).

In the meantime, however, there was only one book that fitted the bill for my purposes: Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa.

Published in 2002, the anthology brings together prose and poetry from more than 15 writers, including Raharimanana, in an effort to address the lack of translated Malagasy literature (which its editors claim stems from the country’s political isolation during its Marxist era and the fact that none of its publishers distribute abroad). Presented in parallel with the original French texts, the works range from bleak, violent tales such as David Jaomanoro’s ‘Funeral of a Pig’, in which a son orchestrates a brutal attack on his mother, through to bombastic, witty pieces like Lila Ratsifandriamanana’s ‘God Will Come Down to Earth Tomorrow!’, in which the world anticipates a visit from the Almighty.

There is a great deal of anger in this book, particularly in the early stories. This comes through in hard-hitting, personal pieces such as Raharimanana’s ‘Case Closed’, which sees an abused woman forced to aid a trafficker by sewing drugs into her baby’s corpse, as well as sharp, satirical stories like ‘The President’s Mirror’, in which writer Bao Ralambo goes to town on the fickleness and narcissism of the title character. There are also more rounded, extended works like Jean-Claude Fota’s ‘Walk No Work’, which depicts brilliantly the mental disintegration of a bright graduate in the face of continual rejection and lack of opportunity, recalling such bildungsromans as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam.

In addition, the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times, while there is an almost magical sense of the clash between the old and the new in stories such as Narcisse Randriamirado’s ‘Grandmother’. We also witness the way that many customs are weighted against gender equality in ‘In the Top’ by Alice Ravoson, which sees a woman strive to put herself through university in the face of family expectations that she will remain tied to domestic life.

As is nearly always the case in an anthology like this, some pieces come across better than others. While there is a lovely, poetic quality to much of the prose writing – no doubt owing to the fact that many of the writers work in both forms – it sometimes tips over into opacity and vagueness. The unrelenting shock and violence of the early pieces may also put some readers off, which is a shame as the collection broadens out beautifully.

Overall, though, as a tasting platter of Malagasy literary talent, this is a flavourful and moreish offering. Reading it adds to the sense of how many great works we must be missing because of the lack of cultural exchange to date. It’s surely high time that changed, so go on, tell me: what Malagasy novels should we English-language types be reading?

Voices from Madagascar ed. Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa (Ohio University Press, 2002)

Benin: knowing your place

November 27, 2012

While it’s hard to find books from some nations, other countries are simply hard to find full stop – at least on the internet. Search for Nigerien literature (ie literature from Niger) and often as not Google will ask you if you meant ‘Nigerian literature’. And when it comes to tracking down information about the West African nation of Benin, you might well find yourself reading about events in Benin City, Nigeria by mistake.

In fact, I very nearly ended up reading a whole book from Benin City in error. The memoir, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, was listed on a bookseller’s website as being from Benin. Not having been able to find much other Beninois literature in English, I ordered it a few months ago and added it to the pile of books waiting in the corner of my living room.

It was only last week, when I picked the volume up with the intention of reading it and turned to the back to look at the blurb, that the penny dropped. Instead of perusing the biography of a senior Beninois politician, I was puzzled to find myself confronted with an account of Erediauwa’s education in Benin City and his experiences during the Nigerian Civil War. It took quite a bit of head-scratching to work out what had gone wrong.

This left me in a quandary. I could count the number of weeks left until the end of the year on my fingers and, given how little my preliminary searches had turned up, I was not at all confident that I would be able to find any kind of story from Benin that I could read in English before 2013.

A few hours of frantic googling ensued, during which I entertained all sorts of unlikely possibilities. I was on the point of investigating the cost of flights to Porto-Novo, when I stoogled across Harlem-based writer Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr. Born in Cotonou, Benin, Ismaili came to NYC as a teenager in the late 1950s with the hope of becoming Africa’s first opera singer, according to her profile on the Woyingi Blog. Instead, however, she took up psychology and began to write and has published several collections of poetry.

A number of articles I saw about Ismaili mentioned that she also writes short stories, although I couldn’t find any of her prose collections available to buy. So, with nothing to lose, I decided to contact her to see if she could help me out. Ismaili replied with the news that a collection of her short stories was in the process of being prepared for publication. The book was not ready yet, but she kindly agreed to send me the manuscript so that I could read it. Delighted and more than a little relieved, I downloaded the file onto my Kindle and got stuck in.

Set mostly in West Africa, Stories We Tell Each Other brings together a series of pieces about people coming up against injustice, discrimination and the limits that society puts on them because of their gender, race or age. There is the young girl set on going to university in the face of her male relatives’ scorn for the idea of educating women, the teenager who lives in fear of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and the boy who travels to join the People’s Liberation Army in South Africa.

Ismaili’s eye for detail makes these struggles real. The sadness and anger of ‘Into This House We Come’, for example – in which a woman attends the funeral of a friend infected with AIDS because of her husband’s promiscuity – live in the narrator’s memories of the dead woman’s laughter and her love of dancing. Similarly, the writer lays bare the pretensions of Khadiatou’s relatives in ‘Ici On Parle Francais’ with the simple revelation that her aunt changed her name from Salimatou to Sally ‘after having gone to London once’.

For all the problems facing the characters, the narratives convey a great deal of pride in West African culture. From depictions of personal rituals such as Khadiatou’s grandmother setting an extra place at the table for their stolen ancestress, through to explanations of the significance of particular insults and the traditions that mean an uncle can also be called a brother, Ismaili takes the role of a guide, interpreting unfamiliar concepts for readers so they too may inhabit the world of the book. Indeed, her evocation of domestic life in Benin is often so warm and inviting that it almost makes you homesick for a place you may never have been.

With this pride and love of place comes of strong sense of the importance of championing the independence and rights of Africans. This gives rise to some powerful, angry writing, as in ‘Coloured Beads and Glass Trees’, in which an exiled politician returns home in an attempt to avert a crisis and, among other things, discovers the grubby conditions attached to Western aid in the region. However, it can at times hi-jack the stories, particularly in the latter third of the book, causing the plots to buck and jerk under its weight. For example, ‘Tandi’, in which a lonely secretary gets swept up in the struggle against apartheid in Johannesburg, creaks a little in the effort to contain all that Ismaili wants to say. In addition, devices such as the radio reports that break into the text, begin to lose their effectiveness with repeated use.

Overall, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Ismaili is at her best when she is writing about the small details that bring meaning to people’s daily lives. In this, she has that rare gift of being able to take readers by the hand and introduce them to lives and concerns very different from their own. An extremely lucky find.

Stories We Tell Each Other by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr (publication pending)

You have just three days left to vote for my penultimate book of the year. Go on, tell me what to read!

Palau: a world apart

November 26, 2012

From very early on in the year, this country of around 21,000 people spread over 250 islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines distinguished itself as the most difficult Pacific island nation to find books from. Every other literary globetrotter I’ve heard of has struggled to find a Palauan story, with many people resorting to anthropological works and histories by Western academics in the absence of anything by writers from the place.

My own experience bore this out. While I was able to find people to contact for recommendations from all the other Pacific nations – no matter how tricky the books ended up being to track down – it was difficult to know where to start with Palau. The few emails I fired off to people in the country disappeared into the ether without a trace. And any experts on the region I contacted simply said Palau would be difficult and left it at that. Things were starting to get desperate.

And then my resourceful colleague – who, by the way, I’m beginning to suspect is some kind of secret agent, so uncanny is his ability to find leads in the remotest of places – sent me a link to a Palauan writers Yahoo group. Judging by the absence of recent activity on the site, it might well have turned out to be another dead-end. However, there was an email address for the list owner. And so, not holding out much hope, I sent a message to it.

After about a week, a detailed email came back from Susan Kloulechad, a Canadian citizen who is married to a Palauan, with whom she has three children, and has lived in the country for nearly 20 years. She suggested several organisations and people to contact on the islands before mentioning that she had a couple of unpublished manuscripts of her own. One in particular, Spirits’ Tides, caught my interest. And so, judging that Kloulechad’s long association with the nation qualified her work to be considered as Palauan, I asked her if she would let me read it.

Moving back and forth between New York and the imaginary archipelago of Lekes, which Kloulechad says is a fictional version of Palau (the name is taken from a place in her husband’s village), the novel tells the fraught love story of Jonathan C Durston Jr and Micronesian girl Rur. Worlds apart in terms of their lifestyles and experiences, the two are really spirit companions who were separated when they entered time and were born at opposite ends of the Earth. They meet again when multi-millionaire tycoon Jonathan crashes his plane in the sea by one of Lekes’ deserted islands and Rur helps save his life. An attraction develops quickly between the pair, but, with so much separating them, a relationship between these star-crossed lovers seems impossible.

Jonathan’s crash-landing in the heart of Lekes provides Kloulechad with a great opportunity to reveal Micronesian culture to the reader. With Rur as a guide, we learn about everything from how to catch a coconut crab to the region’s strong family values and wedding rituals, as well as some of its folk tales. I was particularly pleased to come across the story of the race between the fish and the wily crab, which I read first in Marshall Islands Legends and Stories and now feels like an old friend.

The author balances this with a great evocation of New York City in winter, as seen through Rur’s eyes. Reading it made me deeply nostalgic for strolling through Central Park in the snow and my fingers itched to get online and book a flight – testament to how well Kloulechad captures the place.

There are some good touches of humour in the narrative too. Moments such as Rur’s mischievous pretence that her ability to start fires derives from island magic, rather than the lighter in her back pocket, and her fabrication of a story about the extent of Jonathan’s injuries to help them get a flight more quickly bring the novel alive.

On the downside, the balance slips during some of the debates between Jonathan and Rur so that the book often feels more like a two-dimensional manifesto for ‘the value of a simple life’ in Micronesia than the dramatisation of the meeting of two worlds. At times Rur seems to be hectoring not only Jonathan, but also the Westerner the author seems to envisage reading the book.

In addition, there are problems with the plot: the pact between scheming girlfriend Caroline and Jonathan’s father to entrap the hero in an engagement stretches credibility, while Jonathan’s forging ahead with plans for a marriage he doesn’t want and his reluctance to discover the identity of the employees embezzling funds from his company feel more like a decisions required by Kloulechad to keep the tension going rather than choices the protagonist would make. I was also uncomfortable with the use of Caroline’s desire to work once she’d had children as a way of vilifying her.

Nevertheless, as a light, romantic novel the book has potential. The raw subject matter is rich and Kloulechad’s skill in evoking places makes for some lovely moments. With a bit of structural underpinning and some fine tuning of motivations, it could be a very enjoyable read. And if it finds a publisher, it will also – as far as I can find out – be the first Palauan novel to make it into print. Now that’s something I’d love to see.

Spirits’ Tides by Susan Kloulechad

The Rest of the World vote closes on Friday 30 November at 23.59 (UK time). Make sure you have your say!

I first caught wind of my Turkmen book back in July, when the Scottish Poetry Library tweeted that exiled poet Ak Welsapar was popping up to Scotland from Poetry Parnassus in London to do a reading. Ever the opportunist, I fired off a tweet asking Library staff to see whether Welsapar could recommend a Turkmen prose work that I could read in English. A correspondence ensued with Sarah Stewart, manager of the SPL’s excellent Written World project. As far as she knew, Welsapar had a novel in English due out soon. Perhaps I would be able to read that?

I dropped Welsapar a line. Luckily, it turned out his English was much better than my Turkmen, Russian and Swedish (the three languages the author writes in). He told me that he had not one but too novels in translation in the pipeline: Cobra was due to be published by Silk Road Media in London towards the end of the year if everything went to plan, while The Tale of Aypi was being translated in the US with the manuscript scheduled to be ready in the autumn. He kindly agreed to send me a copy of this, the first ever novel to be translated directly into English from Turkmen, when it was done. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, a rather special attachment arrived in my inbox. I clicked the file open and began to read.

The Tale of Aypi is set in an isolated community of Turkmen fishermen on the coast of the Caspian Sea. With the threat of relocation to the city in order to make way for a lucrative asthma sanatorium looming, the inhabitants face sacrificing their traditions and customs at the dubious altar of progress. But not everyone is prepared to go quietly: loner Araz refuses to leave and flouts the new fishing ban to continue his trade, while, beneath the waters, the ghost of wronged woman Aypi, whose story has haunted the village for centuries, begins to stir and seek revenge.

Welsapar is skilled at making us empathise with a diverse range of viewpoints. At first, in light of Araz’s passionate speeches to his long-suffering wife about what it means to belong to a place and a way of life – ‘If a man can’t follow his father’s trade, what’ll become of him? A man should be able to do what he loves! Is that possible or not?’ – it is hard not to see the rest of the villagers’ acquiescence in the relocation scheme as spineless. Yet, as the novel progresses and we discover the campaign of neglect the authorities have waged in the region, cutting off the most basic services to make life there impossible, and the concerns of the elderly inhabitants about their separation from the urban lives of their children and grandchildren, a more rounded and wistful picture emerges.

The marriage of Mammed Badaly’s son to an influential city worker’s daughter demonstrates this most powerfully. Afraid that his daughter-in-law and her esteemed guests might spurn his home altogether, Badaly waits anxiously for the wedding procession that should by tradition come to his house:

‘Mammed Badaly, though, feared it wasn’t just a matter of setting customs aside, but a grave concern for the present and the future. If the old man’s son and his bride refused to cross the threshold of their own parents’ home on their wedding day, how would it be later on, with their grandchildren? Wouldn’t they repudiate their grandparents entirely?

‘Yes, the village was old; the houses were dilapidated wrecks without polished embellishments and brilliant furnishings of artisan timber like city places had, but the fishermen’s open hearts were here.’

The perils of not finding a way to reconcile outside influences and change with traditions are ever present in the narrative through the spectre of Aypi, the ‘eternally drowned woman’ condemned to death by the community for accepting a ruby necklace from mysterious visitors who arrived on the shore some 300 years before. Fizzing with generations of injustice and repressed anger, the troubled ghost rampages through the streets, whispering feminist manifestos in the ears of men, challenging adulterers and working out a bitter and increasingly indiscriminate revenge.

At times, events take a decided turn for the weird, shuddering the framework of Welsapar’s carefully created world. In addition, the unusual structure of the book – which depends heavily on long dialogues in which points are rehearsed repeatedly – can take some getting used to. It is as though, bustling into the text from the arena of tax returns, tube delays and Twitter feeds, we must adapt to the pace of village life in order to appreciate the narrative to the full.

All in all, though, the quality of the writing and the poet’s exquisite metaphors, which shimmer through the text like jewels glimpsed through water, keep the pages turning. The novel is a striking parable for the incursion of modern life into the world’s remotest places and the havoc that powerlessness wreaks on people’s sense of themselves. Many of its images will stay with me for a good long while to come. Haunting.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (currently seeking an English-language publisher)

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

For a long time, there was only one name on the table for the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis: Caryl Phillips. The award-winning playwright and novelist had been suggested by Sue for the list, and his track record was certainly impressive. No doubt if I read one of his 10 novels (and counting), I would find much to admire.

But there was something that made me hesitate: although born to Kittian parents in St Kitts and Nevis, Phillips left the country when he was just four months old and grew up in the UK. He is now Professor of English at Yale University. Phillips’s work certainly had a claim on being considered Kittian – in much the same way that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is linked to the Dominican Republic – but I couldn’t help wondering what else might be out there from writers who had spent more time living in the country itself.

For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. Much like writing from St Vincent and the Grenadines, books from St Kitts and Nevis seemed to be thin on the ground – at least as far as works that had made into wide enough circulation to reach readers outside the country were concerned.

Then I stoogled upon an article about Bertram Roach, a senior citizen on Nevis, who published his first novel in 2008. The book by the former electrician, who spent some time in the UK as an adult but was raised, educated and trained on the island, was greeted with a great deal of local enthusiasm and government minister Hensley Daniel praised the example Roach’s achievement set for the island’s younger citizens. It sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for.

Inspired by stories heard from the villagers and labourers on the Brown and Bush Hill estates, where Roach’s father was manager in the early decades of the 20th century, Only God Can Make a Tree traces the long shadow of slavery. The narrative focuses on Adrian, the mixed-race son of an Irish immigrant and a local woman, who, because of his light skin, has a degree of social mobility not afforded to many of his peers.

The early 20th century world should be Adrian’s oyster and he gets a good job as an overseer on St Kitts. Yet he finds himself caught between the two communities and, when he starts relationships with both a local Sunday school teacher and his boss’s daughter, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes, setting off a chain of events that will take a generation to make good.

Roach’s plain style lends itself to his subject matter. Whether he is describing the race-based hierarchy of the society, where gradations of skin colour affect job prospects and status, or the mixture of fear and fascination that leads him to jeopardise his relationship with his true love Julia for the rich and flighty Alice, the author’s clear and direct prose makes his story memorable.

This is particularly the case when it comes to his handling of local traditions and customs. From zombie dances and Easter celebrations, through to curiosities such as the saying that when the sun shines while it is raining ‘the devil is beating his wife’, Roach delights in sharing his knowledge of his country with his readers.

This sense of authenticity is clearly important to him, as he makes clear in his Prologue:

‘Non-Caribbean authors have written books after brief encounters on the islands, taking back a notebook full of local gossip. One, Island in the Sun, was a bestseller and was made into a film.

‘I grew up on a sugar plantation in St Kitts and Nevis. The stories I tell are my real stories.’

In fact, the Prologue reminded me of a piece at the beginning of Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me, my choice for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the time I read that, I thought its unusually direct and somewhat declamatory style was peculiar to Browne, but finding a similar introduction at the start of this book makes me wonder whether such pieces might be something of a literary tradition in some Caribbean nations.

Such directness, however, is not always successful in the main body of the book. At times, Roach pushes the narrative aside to expound on topics such as the unscrupulousness of obeah men and his belief that ‘class and colour are the two greatest social evils in most parts of the West Indies’. The plot is also threadbare to the point of reading more like an outline at some points, as though Roach is rattling through it in his impatience to get on to the next episode that sparks his interest.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in this book – and much to interest the non-Kittian or Nevisian reader. Roach set out to tell the stories he wanted to in his own way. And, in that sense, the book is a great success.

Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach (Athena Press, 2008)

Mongolia: a high point

October 27, 2012

There were two choices in the frame for Mongolia. One was a collection of folk tales picked up at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar by writer friend Emily Bullock. The other was Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky, a book recommended by fellow literary globetrotter Paul.

The folk tales sounded tempting, particularly as, weighing in at just 119 very small pages and with lots of illustrations, they would probably have taken less than an hour to read. However, when I found out more about Galsan Tschinag’s extraordinary life story, my attention was hooked.

Born as Irgit Schynykbajoglu Dshurukuwaa (his name in Tuvan), Tschinag adopted German as his written language during his time studying at the University of Leipzig in the sixties before becoming a singer, storyteller, poet, shaman and Tuvan chief. Angered by the impact of the Communist regime on his people, he led a huge caravan of Tuvans back to their ancestral home in the Altai Mountains and campaigns for the rights of the group to this day. He also apparently managed to cure himself of a life-threatening heart condition using his shamanic powers.

By the time I’d finished reading about him, I couldn’t help feeling that Galsan Tschinag was running Tete-Michel Kpomassie a close second for the title of ‘writer I’d most like to meet’.

Drawing heavily on Tschinag’s childhood, The Blue Sky is the coming of age story of a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. On the face of it, he and his family pursue the nomadic herding ways of life that Tuvans have practised for generations; yet far away in the interior of Mongolia change is afoot with the influence of the Soviet Union prompting seismic shifts that will ripple out to the farthest corners of the country and alter the boy’s life for ever.

Few writers inhabit their characters’ thoughts as convincingly as Tschinag does. Capturing the wonder and weirdness of childhood, he has a gift for bringing us into his protagonist’s hopes and dreams. We share in the boy’s fantasies of becoming a baj by building up a flock of more than 1,000 sheep and his wacky plan to count to that number by assembling 100 people and ticking off their fingers one by one, and they feel real and immediate, and strangely reminiscent of our own childhood imaginings. In addition, we recognise the quirky literalism of childhood – which leaves the boy watching his relatives in bewilderment for signs of their necks twisting after a comment from his mother that their heads have been turned – and the power of make-believe which transforms an eagle sighting into a full-blown attack when the boy tells his parents about his day.

This sense of recognition helps Tschinag bring us close to customs and practices that might otherwise feel irreconcilably alien and strange. Identifying with the boy, we can inhabit his world, where sniffing people is a way of expressing affection, children smoke pipes and urine is a remedy for sore eyes. As Tschinag describes the family’s formal adoption of the mysterious old lady who declares herself the boy’s grandma and the extraordinary rituals carried out to honour and respect animals and nature, it is as though we are sitting round the fire in the yurt with the characters, swapping stories.

As a result it is impossible not to feel connected to and invested in this world – and to bristle like Arsylang the dog at the approach of the outside influences set to destroy it. From very personal instances – such as the return of the boy’s older brother and sister from boarding school for the holidays and the awkwardness that springs up between the once-inseparable siblings – to news that the Mongolian Old White Man of traditional New Year’s celebrations has morphed into the Russian Father Frost, we see everywhere the erosion of this rare way of life. And when his father’s attempt to embrace modern hunting techniques backfires tragically towards the end of the narrative, we feel the full weight of the boy’s grief, not only for his personal loss, but for the passing of belonging, identity and meaning itself.

Achingly sad and yet passionately life-affirming, this book is up there with the very best. It is an extraordinary achievement by a writer skilled at celebrating both the unique and the universal. To read it is to marvel at the variety, beauty and strangeness of the human race – and to feel privileged to be part of it.

The Blue Sky (Der blaue Himmel) by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Milkweed Editions, 2006)

Comoros: beyond belief

October 25, 2012

I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.

In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?

I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.

A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.

Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.

Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.

Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.

Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:

‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’

Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.

Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.

But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…

The Kaffir of Karthala  (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon

Pakistan: the long view

October 24, 2012

There were lots of choices for Pakistan – and lots of visitors to this blog with opinions about which book I should go for. Writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Bapsi Sidhwa came up several times in discussion and I had plenty of possibilities to check out when it came to choosing the work for this post.

However, when I started to research the suggestions, there was one book with such a fascinating story behind it that, when I discovered how it came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. Recommended by both Waqas and blogger Fay, who kindly shared her personal Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist with me, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad might never have made it into print. In fact, the first draft of the book, which Ahmad wrote in the early seventies, was locked in a trunk for 30 years and presumed lost by its author after it failed to find a publisher in Pakistan. Luckily, as the novelist told Publisher’s Weekly last year, Ahmad’s wife Helga kept the key, and when Ahmad’s brother heard about a literary competition the work was brought out once more and quickly passed to Penguin.

Framed around the life of Tor Baz, an enigmatic nomad living in the border hills of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet during the mid-20th century, the novel reveals a volatile and fragile world. Orphaned young when his parents are killed by their tribe because of their elopement, Baz passes through a range of groups and guardians, eventually carving out a living by selling information to rival factions in the region. Along the way he crosses paths with lonely soldiers, a mad mullah, people traffickers, prostitutes, a naive European in search of his roots and a wife fleeing the tyranny of travelling with her husband’s performing bear. And, as the British Empire retreats and the borders of the region’s newly declared nations take shape and harden, a desperate struggle emerges between the old ways of life and the modern order.

Ahmad’s depiction of the border region’s landscape is extraordinary. Wild, haunting and treacherous, this ‘tangle of crumbling weather-beaten and broken hills’ and the plains beyond it seem to have as much character and agency as the people who make their lives there. The landscape even moulds their personalities, teaching them ‘to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions’ with its silence, harsh beauty, 120-day winds, and wide, open spaces across which pursuers can be spotted from miles away.

Yet for all its magnificence and antiquity, the landscape is in many ways little more than a rumpled blanket that can be shaken by external powers, tumbling those upon it into confusion. As a result of the closing of the borders and the political changes in the region in the late fifties, many of the local tribespeople run up against unfamiliar forces with which they must do battle in order to survive. Sometimes, tradition and ancient wisdom gain the upper hand, as when the nameless foreigner ventures into the off-limits Afridi territory of his father’s youth only to die a bewildered death, or the local official sent to challenge the Bhittani tribe over colluding in a kidnapping finds himself locked in a ‘battle of wits’ with the tribesmen and is obliged to give up because ‘he could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic’.

More often though, the traditional ways and those who practise them are warped and broken by the weight of a modern system that leaves no room for ambiguity. As the nomadic, stateless Kharot people discover when they attempt to cross the border to the pastureland their tribe has used for centuries and which their animals need to survive, ‘the pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die’ – and die in the most brutal of circumstances.

Such tragedies bring out Ahmad’s most passionate and beautiful writing. In these moments, his disarmingly stripped-back style – characterised by insights such as ‘hope does not die like an animal – quick and sudden. It is more like a plant, which slowly withers away’ and the description of a murdered Mengal tribesman sliding ‘down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground’ – concentrates itself into powerful direct appeals. Perhaps the most moving of these concerns the execution of seven Baluch tribesmen, who, when asked to explain the murder of some rivals, find that their lengthy discourse on the history of tribal relations in the region holds no power to impress the court. ‘Fables have no use here. They are not evidence,’ says the judge, going on to sentence them to death and paving the way for Ahmad’s most memorable pronouncement on what such decisions cost:

‘What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’

This is that rare breed of writing that springs from deep love and knowledge of a place and the people who live there. It is not saccharine, picture-postcard sentimentalism, all rose-tinted nostalgia; nor is it explorer’s obsession, tripping over itself in its eagerness to analyse and explain. No: it is a love that has been forged and tempered by years of living in and absorbing a region in all its beauty, brokenness, brutality and brilliance. Astonishing – and well worth the wait.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Penguin, 2011)

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