October 22, 2012
The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.
I was sure there had to be more some more recent Lesothan literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Lesothan author.
Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.
If I found a book by a Lesothan author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Lesothan women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.
The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Basotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.
Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.
The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although Lesotho traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.
This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:
‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” [...]
‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘
Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e', in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Lesothan women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.
The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.
Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)
September 28, 2012
It was as if she’d read my mind. In fact, I’d just finished Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child and was preparing to post on it when her comment came in.
Shafiqah1 wasn’t the only Ben Jelloun fan to have visited the blog. Back when I first asked the world’s book lovers to tell me what I should be reading late last year, litlove also put in a vote for the writer.
However, what finally made me pick The Sand Child from the cluster of fascinating-sounding Moroccan titles on the list was a recommendation of a very different kind, from a person who doesn’t technically exist.
The Sand Child is the novel Doria, the gutsy teenage heroine of my French choice Just Like Tomorrow, is reading when we first stumble into her tough life on the Paradise Estate in a part of Paris the guidebooks never mention. As I liked Doria, I thought I would probably get on well with a book she enjoys. I also loved the idea of books talking to and about one another, signposting me from one to the next like clues on a massive literary treasure hunt.
And if I needed anything else to persuade me, Doria’s pithy précis of the book was more than enough to make me want to read it:
‘It’s about a little girl who got brought up as a boy because she was the eighth daughter in the family and her father wanted a son. Plus, at the time when it was set, you didn’t have ultrasound or contraception. No kids on sale or return, you get me.’
As Doria suggests, gender issues are at the heart of the novel. Like several other stories I’ve read from relatively conservative Islamic countries, the book is startling in its explicitness and the fearless way it tackles taboos. Focusing on the lonely and troubled Ahmed, who was raised to despise femaleness as a ‘natural infirmity’ that threatens the family’s future because women are forbidden by law to inherit more than a third of their father’s wealth, the narrative presents a complex picture of gender dysphoria that reveals the narrowness of society’s definitions. As Ahmed him/herself explains, ‘the huge ordeal through which I am passing has meaning only outside those petty, psychological schemata that claim to know and explain why a woman is a woman and a man a man’.
Even more engrossing, however, is the picking apart of storytelling that Ben Jelloun weaves through the text. Frequently interrupted by a tour guide-cum-storyteller and various listeners, characters and even literary figures from other tales, the narrative becomes a battleground of interpretations, speculation and suspicion. Just as Ahmed is both male and female, victim and aggressor, transgressor and conformist, so the story veers between truth and falsehood as a range of would-be narrators squabble over its meaning, providing alternative endings and even, at one stage, burning the original text. It is as though plurality and ambiguity are the only things of which we readers can be sure, a sentiment explored by the Blind Troubadour, who weighs in towards the end:
‘Besides, a book – at least that’s how I see it – is a labyrinth created on purpose to confuse men, with the intention of ruining them and bringing them back to the narrow limits of their ambitions.’
Such elusiveness might be maddening in the hands of another writer, but in Ben Jelloun’s it is intriguing, amusing and even beautiful. In fact certain images, such as the description of adopting another identity being like putting on ‘a wonderful magic jellaba, a cloak cut out of the sky and studded with stars’, reach out from the hubbub of the novel’s voices to stop you in your tracks, like rare treasures mixed in among the knick-knacks at a bustling bazaar.
The overall effect is rich, engrossing and challenging. Readers wanting a quiet meander along well-trodden paths are probably best advised to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being pushed, jostled, pulled in all directions, spun round and tumbled into the odd ditch, then this is the book for you.
The Sand Child (L’enfant du sable) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Quartet Books, 1988)
September 23, 2012
This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.
I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?
Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.
Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.
Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.
Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.
Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.
Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.
Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]‘ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.
The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)
August 16, 2012
Say the words ‘Kenyan writer’ to most world literature fans and they will come back with one name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Imprisoned for speaking out against injustice and corruption, the author of such landmark books as A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow abandoned English to write in his first language Gikuyu in the late seventies. He is revered around the world for his work and his passionate advocacy and has been given many awards, seven honorary doctorates and held numerous visiting professorships.
It seemed a no-brainer that I would read one of this literary giant’s novels as my Kenyan choice. But then I heard about Philo Ikonya. Arrested repeatedly for her human rights activism and living in exile in Norway since 2009, the poet and novelist is an avid blogger and journalist, as well as a keen linguist. She is also president of PEN Kenya.
Intrigued though I was to read the work of Kenya’s great man of letters, Ikonya and her oddly titled novel Kenya, Will You Marry Me? piqued my interest. I decided to give it a go.
In a nutshell, the novel is a love story. It gives an account of a life-long passion for and relationship with the country Kenya in all its exuberance and raw pain. Growing up in a village near Nairobi, the young narrator uses dolls to act out and embody some of the conflicts she sees around her, while flashes forward and backward in time and stories from other relatives and friends bring home the personal consequences of such traumatic events as the attempted coup of 1982 and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the rigged election of 2007, as well as the long shadow of colonialism. Hurt but not discouraged by all that she has seen, the young woman transforms herself into the embodiment of Change during the course of the narrative, urging her fellow countrymen and women to get behind her and appealing to the nation she loves to unite itself with her.
Nationhood and what it means to belong to a country bind the narrative like the spine of the book. Frequently speaking about Kenya as a person, the narrator emphasises that ‘history and politics live in homes’, showing how events in parliament pervade even the bed sheets and the cooking pots of the most remote villages. This sense of the interconnectedness of national and domestic events is coupled with a great love and celebration of the beauty of the land and, as the narrator’s grandfather explains, a ‘greater love [which] is to realise that these are only ours for some time and that your children must find them still here’.
As a result of her intense connection with her country, the narrator feels every threat to its wellbeing as a personal attack. This leads to a barrage of righteous anger against the injustice of colonial rule, the heartlessness and corruption of politicians, the cruel rapes suffered by many of the country’s women and children, and the fact that ‘people gifted with melanin continued to be left out of the game’. Often, this takes the form of powerful, rhetorical addresses in which the narrator apostrophises various groups in her effort to galvanise them into positive action, taking in everyone from her dolls and her compatriots, to corrupt politicians and even Western readers:
‘You, most of you, in the West have the comfort of analyzing what you call deception, we are grateful for the small straws of hope we see near us. We cannot afford to shun all.’
Ikonya’s poetic sense comes through strongly in the narrative, adding subtle layers of meaning. Whether she’s playing with rhymes to make deeper points – ‘I have never been able to hear the word “bribe” without seeing “tribe”. Vice like lice lives in families too’ – or stripping back the etymology of place names and sexual terms to reveal the power struggles that lie beneath, she uses words richly, milking them for every last drop of significance.
Readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history and politics, as I was, will sometimes struggle to follow the narrative, which is often essentially a stream of consciousness ‘crisscross[ing] years, beating arrangements in books’. In addition, the novel’s fragmented and free-flowing nature means that there is often very little to drive it forward other than the narrator’s passion. The fingers begin to itch to flick in the last third where earlier polemics on corruption and women’s rights are reprised without much development.
Nevertheless the commitment and fervour of the narrator carry the day. As a portrait of patriotism, this stands in stark contrast to the rather anaemic if not downright cynical expressions of national pride we tend to hear in the UK. It is an urgent reminder of the importance of politics and the influence that individuals can have on events larger than themselves. No wonder the people in power felt threatened.
Kenya, Will You Marry Me? by Philo Ikonya (Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2011)
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)
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)
July 14, 2012
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)
July 6, 2012
This was a second-hand recommendation. It was posted on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page by Michael Walkden, who said he’d recently met Natasha Soobramanien, a writer of Mauritian descent, and asked her to recommend a book for his project (intriguingly, he didn’t say what his project is – if you’re reading this, Michael, I’d love to hear more). She’d suggested Benares by writer and film director Barlen Pyamootoo and he thought he’d pass the tip on.
I was doubly grateful for the recommendation when, on researching the novel, I discovered that it was very short. So short, in fact, that in most editions it is published with another novella, In Babylon. This would certainly help to keep me on target to read one book every 1.87 days. In fact, I reckoned I could probably read the whole thing in a single journey to work.
The doors beeped shut on the East London line and I plunged into Pyamootoo’s tale of two men who set out to find a couple of prostitutes in Port Louis to bring back to their village of Benares for the night. Driven into town by trusty friend and former mill worker Jimi, the pair meander around the red-light district, paying visits to several formidable madams before finally managing to engage two women to accompany them home. As the car takes them back through the benighted landscape and the men and women sound each other out through small talk, a wider discussion opens up about identity, companionship and the loss of the old ways of life.
Pulling out of Canada Water station, I made a note in the margin about the details that bring the narrative alive: the brothel with the beds with concrete bases, the narrator’s friend Mayi’s eyes ‘rolling and blinking like a wanted man’s', the lights of smugglers’ boats flashing out at sea.
These give Pyamootoo license to dwell on ostensibly simple and even mundane exchanges, using them to chart the minute shifts in dynamics that keep the drama and tension in the scenes. This only breaks down once – when the narrator stops the car to go into a restaurant and buy some cigarettes. Here, the flat transaction feels like an unnecessary interlude, although it may serve to point up the subtle transformation taking place in the car.
This, as I realised while changing lines at Highbury & Islington station, concerns the slow seep of the background into the foreground. While the descriptions of the billboards and buildings sites around the capital start off as almost incidental details, the development and commercialisation of much of the island at the expense of its poorest communities – as evidenced by the closure of Benares’s mill – come to underpin the novella.
Each of the characters gradually reveals vulnerabilities and insecurities that derive from the breakdown of the old structures. The only way to bridge these gaps is to tell stories, as the narrator discovers when he embarks on a wistful account of his journey to the other Benares, a sacred city in India where many Hindus go to die in the hope of attaining paradise: ‘I thought to myself that stories must be what we travel for, to have something to tell the people we love’, he reflects.
Pyamootoo’s writing about this ‘feeling of opening up to the world, of becoming part of some sort of network’ is so compelling and seductive that I finished the last 10 pages of the novella sauntering along the pavement away from King’s Cross, oblivious to the commuters shoving past me. I hadn’t expected the story to be so beautiful and so surprising. It made me sad to turn the last page. If only every journey to work could be like this.
Benares by Barlen Pyamootoo, translated from the French by Will Hobson (Canongate, 2004)
June 29, 2012
This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.
Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.
In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:
‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’
Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.
If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.
A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)
June 26, 2012
What people don’t tell you when you set out to read the world is that the research can take almost as many hours as the reading. Googling, emailing groups and individuals for recommendations, checking that suggestions meet the criteria, trying to decide which book to go for – it all takes time. So it’s always a joy when an expert on a particular country’s literature helps me out.
Ngawang at the Writers Association of Bhutan is one of these wonderful people. When I contacted the group through its blog, he sent me a list of five writers, together with four suggestions of titles. Of these, I chose The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, partly because Ngawang described it as ‘one of the best books by a Bhutanese author’, but also because it is the first book by a Bhutanese woman published outside Bhutan, which makes it something of a milestone in South Asian literature. I was very excited when it arrived from India, vacuum-packed in cellophane.
The novel follows the life of Tsomo, a young girl from rural Bhutan who, not content to settle for a life of domestic drudgery, sets out to explore the world. Forced to be an outsider because of a mysterious illness that gives her a permanently distended belly, Tsomo works her way into northern India, drawn by the friendships she makes, a growing fascination with the Buddhist masters and communities that thrive in the Himalayan foothills, and a desire for peace.
The raw deal facing women in rural South Asian society is a major theme. Right from the opening chapters – in which the young Tsomo, unable to convince her father to educate her alongside her brothers, decides that being born a woman must be a punishment for bad karma from previous lives – the book portrays a world in which misogyny, sexual abuse and injustice are daily realities.
Women are by no means passive victims, however. One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of the series of exuberant and warm friendships Tsomo makes throughout her life with other women. Many of these relationships, such as her bond with Dechen Choki – a young woman Tsomo saves from being raped repeatedly by their supervisor when they are working as manual labourers – are founded on the women’s shared experience of adversity.
This salvaging of positives from suffering is one of the many Buddhist tenets woven through the book. With much of its narrative taking the form of parabolic episodes through which Tsomo learns truths about the world and herself, the novel almost reads like a manual for progression to enlightenment at points.
What makes it work is Choden’s gift for evocation, both of place and of experience. Her descriptions of the rugged spiritual terrain Tsomo covers in her quest for peace and her moments of ecstasy reminded me of other great religious works, such as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, particularly in the passages concerning Tsomo’s pilgrimages to sacred sites such as Bodhgaya and Kathmandu:
‘Once there they looked for the Boudhanath chorten, the Great Stupa, the starting point for every Bhutanese pilgrim in Nepal. From the moment they arrived at the chorten, Tsomo felt its awesome presence everywhere. The eyes on the chorten seemed to look deep into her soul and she felt humbled and almost afraid. She felt she could not hide anything from those eyes and yet at the same time, she was drawn to them in a strange way.’
Now and then the narrative gets bogged down in explaining the many religious and social customs that fill the book. This no doubt owes something to Choden’s decision to write her novel in English – a sign that she intended her story to be read outside Bhutan by people who may not be familiar with the country’s culture. Occasionally passages on topics such as why formal marriage is not common in rural communities and the ritual of overfeeding guests can read more like anthropological essays than chapters in a novel.
Mostly, though, this is a fascinating and absorbing book. Reading it drew me into this little-known world even more profoundly than I suspect visiting a hundred Buddhist gompas in the Himalayas would. A rare treat.
The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (Zubaan/Penguin India, 2005)