Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

When I was at university, I saw the following question on an exam paper: ‘Literary prizes often go to the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’ It was one of my earliest exposures to the doubts that often surface as the book world’s award ceremonies come round each year.

It’s easy to see why some people are cynical about prizes. With so many publications competing for attention (according to the Guardian recent years have seen more than 20 titles released every hour in the UK alone, with a total of 184,000 new and revised works coming out in 2013), it seems inevitable that awards are at least partly luck of the draw.

Indeed, history is littered with the names of literary greats passed over for accolades that subsequent generations of readers would have rushed to heap upon them. Neither Virginia Woolf nor James Joyce received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example, while several of those lauded over the decades have slipped into obscurity.

Nevertheless, during my quest to read a book from every country, I found book prizes could act as useful signposts when it came to selecting reads from literary traditions and markets that were largely unfamiliar to me. The fact that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta had won the Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award, for instance, emboldened me to choose it for Sri Lanka with positive results.

So, although I appreciate that book prizes are an inexact science, I nevertheless look out for the announcement of the major longlists and shortlists each year. And for those of us interested in reading books that originate beyond the English-speaking world, they don’t come much more major than the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded for the first time last year to Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a book of the month pick of mine some months before.

April’s book of the month, Argentinian novelist Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, comes from the shortlist for the 2017 award. I read it some weeks ago after seeing lots of excitement about it on social media and it stayed with me. Earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that it was among the six novels in contention for the award.

Framed as a vision arising from a woman’s delirium as she lies dying, the narrative centres on a holiday gone sour. Terror glints in the sunshine as Amanda haltingly recalls meeting flamboyant Carla and the macabre story she shared about her desperate attempt to save her poisoned son, David, by submitting him to a process of partial  transmigration conducted by a local medicine woman. Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the malevolent forces in question are not confined to Carla’s memory, and that Amanda and her daughter Nina could be at risk from them too.

Concision is central to the narrative’s power. In this slender, 194-page novel, Schweblin and McDowell know the weight of each word and deploy them to achieve maximum pressure.

Mystery abounds as the familiar becomes strange. This is a world where the most mundane of things – a child waking in the night, a lesser-known brand of peas – acquire a horrid weirdness. And as Amanda swerves in and out of the story, urged on by the very David whose eerie unmaking lies at the heart of the book, the ground of the narrative shifts unnervingly beneath our feet.

‘You know. But you don’t understand,’ David tells Amanda. Is he addressing us too?

Loathe though I am to make too much of comparisons between writers from markedly different times and traditions, I couldn’t help but find echoes of the work of one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, here. Schweblin’s management of unease and foreboding is every bit as deft as the building of giddy queasiness found in such classics as The Haunting of Hill House. (Incidentally, Ruth Franklin’s outstanding biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is a must-read for all those who have enjoyed Jackson’s work.)

The result is memorable, haunting and brave. Like all books that test the limits of what words can do, Fever Dream takes risks and there are odd occasions where the narrative knots or sags, such that some readers might flail to regain the thread. These are few, however.

Not having read Schweblin’s other works, I can’t say how this compares and whether or not it is the title from her oeuvre most deserving of global recognition. But if the Man Booker International Prize judges see fit to honour Fever Dream this year, I would count it a worthy second winner.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Image from manbookerprize.com

Book of the month: Abdulai Silá

Hearing about new translations coming from nations that are underrepresented in the English-language literary world is always exciting. It’s especially pleasing when these titles are from countries whose literature I struggled to access in 2012 – places like Turkmenistan, Panama and Madagascar (which should soon have its first complete translated novel published in English).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was when I got an email from translator Jethro Soutar a few weeks ago. Seeing Soutar’s name in my inbox was a thrill in its own right: he is the translator of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s widely acclaimed By Night the Mountain Burns, only the second book to make it into English from Equatorial Guinea and my pick for Book of the month a year or so ago.

When I opened the email, my excitement grew. Soutar wanted to let me know that, in part prompted by discovering through my project that there were no novels available in English by writers from Guinea-Bissau, he had made it his mission to find a work to translate from the nation. He had done so and the resultant book, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá, was being published by Dedalus this April. Would I be interested in seeing an advance copy?

Would I ever! Guinea-Bissau was one of the toughest nations to find something to read from. Back in 2012, I had resorted to a collection of mid-20th-century political writings by the revolutionary thinker Amílcar Cabral – the necessity of this was sadly ironic, as one of the points Cabral makes is how important the exchange of culture and stories across borders is.

Now, at last the first full-length work of Bissauan literature was available to many more of the world’s readers.

Ostensibly, the novel follows the fortunes of Ndani, a teenager who goes to work as a servant in the capital after a local magic man proclaims that she is cursed, only to find that the negative forces governing her existence are more difficult to escape than she hopes. In practice, however, the narrative brings in the stories and perspectives of a number of different characters who Ndani encounters and there are long stretches where we hear nothing about her at all. The tragedy that does ultimately affect the protagonist is a much more diffuse and meandering affair than many of us might be used to seeing in novels – certainly novels written in English.

This is one of several aspects of the book that those used to Western literature may find off-putting at first. Others include a rather unfamiliar approach to pacing – which sees the rapes and deaths of central characters skimmed over in a sentence or two, while football matches and long sessions of soul-searching about seemingly tangential issues can take up several pages – as well as leaps and double-backs in the chronology that can be bewildering.

However, those who persevere will be rewarded. As the pages turn, you begin to find your way into the world of the book. The problem, you come to realise, is not with the writing, as you might have first thought (a common knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar that we literary explorers must always be careful to interrogate). Instead, it is we who need to learn how to read it.

Fundamentally, the plot is secondary to the ideas Silá wants to illustrate. Chief among these are the damage wrought by colonialism and the resultant doublethink with which generations of Bissau-Guineans have been indoctrinated. Sometimes these issues are stated explicitly, but often they are woven through the thought processes of the characters. The best example is the ambitious Régulo. Full of plans to get his compatriots to recognise and throw off the shackles of their history, he nevertheless can look at the mixed-race wife of an official and conclude that the man must be a ‘second-rate white’ for marrying her, revealing the way he has internalised the prejudices he rails against. Similarly, though he rages at the atrocities perpetrated by the Europeans, his sexual fantasies about his reluctant sixth wife are riddled with the language of conquest.

The idea-led quality of much of the narrative may make the book sound dry, but that is not the case. Silá delights in using humour to spear hypocrisy and there is some startling imagery at play in many passages. He also demonstrates a flair for technically adventurous storytelling, with the novel featuring one-sided conversations here and deft uses of repetition there. The passages in which Ndani falls in love at last are beautiful and joyous, as are the descriptions of her discovery of sexual fulfillment.

Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar. In addition, he has woven in some delightful language play. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the story that ‘had nothing to do with Senhor Machado’s work in customs and excise, [but rather] concerned customs exercised in his house’.

Those looking for the smooth, literary narrative beloved of many anglophone book reviewers won’t find it in The Ultimate Tragedy. But nor should they. This is not a Western novel, but a Bissauan one, told on a Bissauan author’s terms. As such, it is an important addition to our bookshelves. Though he would no doubt have been horrified at the thought that it would take until 2017 for a novel by one of his compatriots to be translated into the world’s most published language, I suspect Amílcar Cabral would have approved of this choice.

The Ultimate Tragedy (A última tragédia) by Abdulai Silá, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, April 2017)

Book of the month: Lydie Salvayre

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This is the third French book that I have featured on this blog. It is also the third book by an immigrant or child of immigrants to that nation.

Indeed, when I came to think about where to pigeonhole this review in my country-by-country list of titles, I hesitated. Although Lydie Salvayre was born in France and writes in French, the subject matter of her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Cry, Mother Spain – which centres around the 1930s Spanish civil war – makes a strong case for the work being considered at least partly as belonging to that nation.

This ambiguity is fitting. Given that the dark side of nationalism drives much of the action in this book –which fuses together history, imagination, quotes from source material and the recollections of Salvayre’s Spanish mother (crossing genre boundaries as much as straddling borders) – it seems right that the narrative resists categorisation by country. Just as its central characters – teenage Montse, her ideological pro-Anarchist brother José and his bourgeois rival Diego – agonise and clash over the sort of Spain they want to live in, so the story that contains them challenges and questions its own identity.

Indeed, though the novel (for want of a better word) is rooted in the events that led up to the start of Franco’s dictatorship, much of this book resonates across the decades. Many readers will find uncomfortable parallels in the chilling way that the presentation of events is manipulated by those in power. We can sympathise with the narrator’s observation that what she discovers in her research stirs ‘fears of seeing today’s bastards revive the noxious ideas [she] thought had been put to rest a long time ago’.

Her 90-year-old mother puts it more bluntly. When asked if Diego’s manipulative speeches to the villagers made him sound like the politicians of today, she replies ‘They’re all the same, […] crooks the lot of them.’

This irreverence, which runs beneath much of the narrative and erupts into humour surprisingly frequently, is one of the things that make the novel a joy to read. There is a delicious archness to Salvayre’s depiction of the hypocrisy of many of the minor characters. The prime example is the pious hypochondriac doña Pura, who bestows her favours ‘with a sort of Christian sweetness thick with threat’.

In addition, the playful fusion of French and Spanish in Montse’s speech makes for some marvellous moments. Translator Ben Faccini must be congratulated for the way he has reflected this ‘cross-bred, trans-Pyrenean language’ in English. As an example, here’s Montse on the throwaway comment that first awoke her to injustice when at the age of 15 she went to interview for a position as a maid and the prospective employer remarked approvingly that she seemed quite humble:

‘For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.’

Salvayre is a psychiatrist and her insight into the workings of the human brain shows. Both in moments of humour and during the narrative’s many darker passages, she delineates the shifts in thinking that steer characters from one course to another, trap them into actions and render certain outcomes inevitable.

Her ability to imagine her way into the thought processes of the diverse characters she portrays is what makes the book such a triumph. At its root, is an awareness of the common humanity that binds us across centuries, borders and historical moments – of the fact that, much as we might like to imagine otherwise, human nature remains the same far more than it alters. In this, Cry, Mother Spain is at once a warning and a rallying call: we are all people, it proclaims. We are all touching and full of marvels and vulnerable to the same delusions that have ensnared so many before us.

Or, as Salvayre’s compatriots might say, plus ça change.

Cry, Mother Spain (Pas pleurer) by Lydie Salvayre, translated from the French by Ben Faccini (MacLehose Press, 2016)

Photo: Antifascist Committee Stamp, Spanish Civil War by Joseph Morris on flickr.com

Book of the month: Yan Lianke

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This novel has the distinction of being the first book of the month to come from a country that I have already featured in this slot. My inaugural Chinese BOTM choice was Cao Wenxuan’s delightful children’s story Bronze and Sunflower, which this month won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. Hearty congratulations to its English-language translator, Helen Wang.

My next pick – or rather its author – has been on my radar since my original year of reading the world. Yan Lianke was one of a number of Chinese writers recommended to me by translator Nicky Harman, who kindly undertook to give me some advice on what I might read from the planet’s most populous nation. In the end, I went with a novel translated by Harman – Han Dong’s striking and unjustly overlooked Banished! – however, I was intrigued by what she had told me about controversial Beijing-based satirist Yan and have had it in mind to read his work since then.

So when I happened upon several translations of his novels in Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly a few weeks back, I decided to pick one out. Several sounded tempting, but it was the premise of Lenin’s Kisses that swung it.

Revolving around Liven, a village populated almost exclusively by disabled people in China’s remote Balou mountains, the narrative follows the unfolding of a plan by ambitious county official Chief Liu. With a view to enriching the region beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imaginings, he resolves to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia and use it as a tourist attraction to draw visitors from all over the world. In order to raise the funds to attempt this, he proposes to use Liven’s residents to stage a travelling freak show, with extraordinary and sometimes alarming results.

If the summary makes you think this is a quirky book, you’d be right. The story is decidedly odd and Yan makes no apology for that. Elements of the fantastic creep in – snow falls in summer, a woman with dwarfism is cured by having sex with a man of normal height, the freak-show performers prove themselves capable of mind-boggling feats.

What’s more, the structure of the book magnifies its strangeness. Weirdly arbitrary footnotes pepper the text, running on for pages and pages, sometimes with notes on the notes, so that the reader is sent hither and thither, as narrative within narrative opens and closes like the petals of rare flowers. This can be irritating at first (and I have to confess I wouldn’t want to attempt this book on an ereader), but when you relax into it, it quickly becomes part of the playfulness in what is at times a very funny book.

It is perhaps this use of humour that allows Yan to get away with some of the more daring political criticisms lodged in the text (unlike several of his other books, Lenin’s Kisses has not been banned in Mainland China and was even given the prestigious Lao She Literary award, although it did cost him his employment as an author for the People’s Liberation Army). Though much of the novel could be read as a criticism of capitalism – the worst events result from the accumulation of obscene wealth by the unexpectedly successful performers – there is no shortage of jibes at ‘higher ups’ closer to home.

Yan, who has admitted self-censoring his work, does a powerful line in pointed observations that could be read several ways. The following is a great example: ‘The government looks after its people and the people should remember the government’s kindness; this is the way things had been for thousands of years.’

Quirky though it is (and by far the funniest Chinese literary work I have read), the novel does share some characteristics with other books I’ve encountered from the nation. The language is earthier and more abrasive than you often see in anglophone literature – expletives abound in some sections and curses are hurled around rather casually. What’s more, descriptions of violence and bodily functions are quite graphic.

That said, the narrative also reflects many of the universal traits found in the world’s best storytelling too. Yan has extraordinary psychological insight and traces the thought processes of his characters with a deftness reminiscent of some of the greatest authors from the home nation of Lenin’s corpse. His depiction of the Hall of Devotion, for example, a room where Chief Liu records (and sometimes embellishes) his achievements alongside those of the world’s great communist leaders is wonderful. Similarly, in Grandma Mao Zhi, the formidable spokeswoman of the people of Liven, he creates an extraordinary portrait of a person spurred on and yet also destroyed by the desire to fulfil a vow.

Clever, daring, amusing and inventive, this is an excellent read. It thoroughly deserves the many accolades it has achieved and is without question a world-class book. The front of my copy features the following endorsement from celebrated Chinese-American writer Ha Jin: ‘The publication of this magnificent work in English should be an occasion for celebration.’ He is right.

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Vintage, 2013)

Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #4: Abnousse Shalmani

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There can be few more striking juxtapositions than the one found in the title of Abnousse Shalmani’s memoir Khomeini, Sade and Me. Indeed, it’s unlikely that the names of the ultra-conservative founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the notorious French aristocrat who penned some of the most violent and explicit literature ever published have ever found themselves staring at each other over a comma before.

The jarring effect of the title is entirely fitting, however, for it encapsulates the gulf that its author has crossed in the course of her life – a feat that forms the basis of this, her first book. Jumping from her childhood to her present-day existence, as well as to many incidents in between, the narrative records the reasons for and consequences of Shalmani’s atheist family’s decision to leave Iran for France a few years after the 1979 revolution. In so doing, it provides a framework for the writer to set out and interrogate the conflicting forces that shaped her, as well as to explore the immigrant experience, and build passionate arguments for equality and free expression.

The controversy inherent in the title is reflected on every page. This is an angry book and Shalmani pulls no punches in pillorying Khomeini and the fundamentalist men and women – dubbed ‘Beards’ and ‘Crows’ – who champion a creed to which she cannot subscribe. Many of her arguments, such as her vehement opposition to Muslim women wearing the veil, make for challenging reading – particularly in light of France’s recent burkini scandal.

Shalmani is well aware of this. For many, she writes, she will be ‘just a woman that comes off as a racist when she fears for the future of other women’, yet she will not give ground in the face of those for whom ‘open-mindedness is just a way of washing their hands of the matter’. Indeed, she makes no attempt to help her case or soften her words, thinking nothing of dismissing those who disagree as ‘idiots’.

The reasons for Shalmani’s vehemence are two-pronged and have their roots in the men featured in the title of her book. On the one hand, there is the extreme suffering that she and her family went through when their values clashed with those of their homeland’s new regime; for Shalmani this plays out particularly strongly in gender issues and the attempt to police women’s bodies not just in Iran but throughout the world because ‘each culture has its own women’s prison’. On the other hand, there is the ‘divine Marquis’, whose writings remade her and changed her thinking for good.

The most extraordinary passages are those in which Shalmani writes about her encounters with libertine literature – which she accessed first, surprisingly, with the help of her father who ‘firmly believed that there is no crime worse than censorship’. When writing about how reading Sade’s scenes of unparalleled depravity made her fearless and free in her thinking, staunch in her defence of free expression, and exhilarated about what words can do to expand horizons and change minds, she is magnificent. (Indeed, she is a much bolder reader than I am: I once opened The 120 Days of Sodom in a bookshop and had to put it back on the shelf after a paragraph because I was feeling sick…)

With such a literary hero, it is small wonder that Shalmani does not shrink from causing offence and expressing herself as powerfully as she can. This does her work a disservice occasionally. At points, it makes her writing seem as dogmatic as the teachings of those she attacks. In addition, the fervour with which she expresses love and admiration for her adopted country, France, can sometimes sound a little naive.

On the whole, though, her passion is compelling. Many readers will not agree with all she says and some may be offended, but that is, in a way, the point: this book is a reminder that outrage should be part of the reading experience. It demonstrates that words ought to stretch, challenge and unsettle us. And it is a stark demonstration of the terrible things that can happen when there is no space left in which to question or offend.

Khomeini, Sade and Me (Khomeini, Sade et moi) by Abnousse Shalmani, translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe (World Editions, 2016)

Picture: (TEDxParis Nov2015) Abnousse Shalmani (2) by Olivier Ezratty on flickr.com