Book of the month: Shalash the Iraqi

‘I won’t disappear. I’m the people. I’m the poor. I am the truth. I’m a scream of protest in the face of crimes.’

I learnt to read when I was 30 years old. For the first three decades of my life, I believed that reading was about bringing context to books, unpacking the meaning of words, and using biographical, historical and critical references to understand what was being said.

But when I set out on my quest to read a book from every country in 2012, I quickly realised that this approach was not going to work. With only 1.87 days to find, read and write about each text I featured on this blog that year, there was no time for reading around and the careful critical analysis that had formed the backbone of my academic study of literature.

Faced with numerous texts from unfamiliar traditions, I had to accept that there were going to be a lot of things I didn’t know or couldn’t be sure of in the books I read that year. I would have to embrace incomprehension and see if I could have a meaningful encounter with these stories all the same.

This approach formed the basis of the reading workshops I now run in-person and online for curious readers at schools, universities and community groups. And it continues to inform my reading to this day.

Still, every so often, a text comes along that challenges me to take not-knowing to another level – and reminds me of the value of doing so. My latest Book of the month is a good example.

Shalash the Iraqi didn’t start life as a book. Instead, it began as a series of around 80 blog posts written in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein by an anonymous writer, also known as Shalash the Iraqi, living in Baghdad’s Thawra district. Radical in many senses – not least because of its biting satire and fearless criticism of the infighting, corruption and cruelty of the various factions struggling for control in Iraq – this collection of essays, short stories, parodies and polemics became an underground hit, a 21st-century samizdat text, printed out and circulated in secret. Now reassembled and curated by its still-anonymous author and translated by Luke Leafgren, this urgent writing is available to English speakers for the first time, nearly two decades after the events that prompted it.

There are plenty of opportunities for not knowing in this book. Bristling with references to local politicians, celebrities and scandals, as well as sectarian rifts, the text feels extremely slippery at times. There is little to hold onto and few footholds in many of the entries. Sometimes pages go past where it is impossible for someone without intimate knowledge of early-21st century Baghdad to retain much sense of what is being expressed.

Translator Luke Leafgren says in his afterword that he initially envisaged filling the book with encyclopaedic footnotes to help explain the multiple references. He (rightly in my opinion) decided against this on the basis that it would introduce more barriers than it removed. Instead, he invites readers to consult YouTube, Google maps and other online resources, reading the book in tandem with the internet on which it first appeared.

While this might aid understanding of some of the more information-heavy sections, however, it will not remove many of the challenges that come with this text for readers in other times and places.

Humour is one of the key issues. Knowing that the original blog posts were celebrated for their wit creates a strange tension in the mind. Are we supposed to regard descriptions of magical elephants and boys peeing oil as clever allegories for things we can’t pin down or surreal flights of fancy? Are the more extreme descriptions of the privations of life in occupied Iraq heartfelt laments or dark satire? Or both?

Nevertheless, there are moments where there can be no doubt of the humour at play. Many of these involve spoof pieces such as ‘The Shalashian Satellite Channel’, where a promise to give ‘each of our political parties an opportunity to introduce their platforms’ quickly disintegrates into muzzling candidates with lengthy adverts and irrelevant calls from viewers. There are also many zinging oneliners – take the description of Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards, ‘those men who would abandon said leader more than twenty years later so he could star in a TV show about sleeping alone in a pit’.

Similarly, at certain points there can be no mistaking the sorrow behind the words. A few paragraphs after the above, comes a particularly moving passage that reminds us of the damage Hussein wrought:

‘Then the sanctions settled in and transformed us from young men with dreams, striving for life, into street vendors with corner stalls; from excellent students into drivers’ assistants on minibuses; from lovers of life into scowling, deeply etched, prematurely aged faces.


‘Look at the Comrade Leader who destroyed our lives. Here he is, on trial for murdering a group of our people in Dujail. I also wanted to tell you that His Honor, the judge, is a kind man. He really does seem to be doing his job without remembering that the accused man standing before him did far worse than what’s listed on the charge sheet. He murdered our futures. He brought an end to our laughter and transformed our country from a paradise, the envy of nations, into a garbage dump picked over by black cats, as crows caw in the sky above.’

Yet Saddam Hussein is not the biggest villain in the book. One of the key challenges when you encounter stories from elsewhere are the moments when you realise you are not the reader the writer imagines. ‘You, dear reader, are also an Iraqi,’ writes Shalash. But of course the vast majority of those reading in English won’t be, except perhaps in a Je suis Charlie sense. Instead, we are more nearly aligned with Shalash’s greatest oppressor, the occupying forces who deposed Hussein and plunged Iraq into chaos.

For translator Luke Leafgren the response to this is to attempt to understand and amplify. One of his key motivations for undertaking the translation, he says, was his consciousness of being part of the culture that tipped Iraq into the savage instability that grips it to this day.

Given that the texts are not written in standard Arabic but in Shalash’s local dialect, this presented huge challenges. And there is no question that Leafgren has done a fantastic job in producing a lively, irreverent, coherent voice on the page, even if the text does creak occasionally in its attempts to convey the nuances of the original’s word play.

I’m with Leafgren when it comes to the importance of amplifying voices and attempting to use stories to establish common ground. But I also think that bewilderment and not-knowing have an important part to play when reading stories from elsewhere, even if it can make for a daunting read best approached in small sips day by day (in the manner in which the posts were first released) rather than a text that grips and sweeps you along.

It is by holding questions in our mind and remaining aware of the possibility that we have not understood perfectly that we can come closest to respecting the experiences and humanity of others.

This is perhaps particularly true when it comes to a text like Shalash the Iraqi. As the writer himself reminds us in his preface, bewilderment was central to what he and his compatriots lived through when the old order was bulldozed overnight: ‘I found myself a stranger in my own country, as bewildered as if I were suddenly thrust into the set of a movie about the Prophet of Islam in the early years of his ministry. Yes, my country vanished from the map after the invasion, and it was a bitter shock.’

In finding language exploded in this book and picking our way through words made strange, second-guessing ourselves at every turn, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, we perhaps come closest to the experience of those who first read these narratives. ‘See how quickly this story got from silly to deadly?’ writes Shalash in one of the earliest posts in the book. Well, quite.

Shalash the Iraqi by Shalash the Iraqi, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (And Other Stories, 2023)

Book of the month: Eva Baltasar

Back in the Neolithic age, when I was an undergraduate student, there was a fashion at my university for professors to set provocative questions on the contemporary literature exam paper. One example went something like this: ‘The Booker prize rewards the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’

The truth is, literary prizes can be tricky things. At their best, they are great platforms, raising up brilliant books that many of us would never otherwise hear about. As I found several times during my quest to read a book from every country, they can be invaluable guides for readers with little experience of books from certain parts of the world, particularly when they are led and judged by experts on the writing of the region.

However, prizes can also be skewed by the interests and biases of their founders and sponsors. At their worst, they run the risk of rewarding literature that conforms to a certain kind of system or worldview rather than purely championing quality writing. Or, as the essay question suggests, they make awkward compromises driven by external factors, plumping for safe choices over daring, exciting work.

The International Booker Prize, however, seems to be doing a fairly good job of dodging these pitfalls. Since it merged with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, it has recognised a number of brilliant and surprising works that refuse to conform to the anglophone publishing industry’s prevailing trends.

This year’s shortlist is no exception. Not only does it feature Standing Heavy, a Book of the month of mine from a little while back, but it also contains the engrossing and mind-bending Boulder.

This is a novel that resists a summary. ‘Nothing is essential when you refuse to imprison life in a narrative,’ explains the protagonist in the opening pages, as she describes her nomadic existence, largely as a chef on board cargo ships. Gradually, however, the scattered elements in the pages are pulled into alignment by a relationship that at first grounds and then overwhelms the narrator, to the point where she risks losing herself.

Part of what is so arresting and subversive in the writing is its presentation of a female voice discussing female experience as though from the outside. ‘I talk about women without counting myself among them,’ says the narrator. ‘I’m not a woman. I am the cook on an old merchant ship.’

As a result, when her lover Samsa decides to have a child, the narrator finds herself observing gestation and early motherhood, while struggling to define and defend her own role in the family. At times, her tone is misogynistic. In fact, her femaleness gives her licence to express things that may sound unacceptable in a male voice. Mired in domesticity, she explains how responsibility ‘sutures itself to the brain and contaminates the blood with its narcotic fluids’, leading her to seek solace with drinking buddies and other women in the time-honoured tradition of many a jaded husband.

But there is also a wonderful freshness to her perspective. Her description of observing Samsa deliver their child is one of the most powerful reflections on the process of giving birth I’ve had the privilege to read:

‘It becomes clear to me how imperfect nature is. Imperfect and cruel, almost furious. It’s not wise and never has been. How many centuries have to pass before a woman can give birth without it looking like an experiment? The midwife keeps a cool head. She asks the baby to flow and Samsa to flow with it. All I can think about are cesareans. I am witnessing something reckless. Like stealing jewels from a museum or breaking prisoners out of a police van—there’s just so much that can go wrong. Every second contains a possible mistake. Danger sticks out its tongue and coats everything in a layer of gluey, lethal drool.’

The use of language is key to the book’s success (hearty credit to translator Julia Sanches here). Fragments at the opening. Contradictions. Disjointed phrases and objects. The narrator drifting from place to place, garnering fleeting impressions that are gradually harnessed into longer sentences as convention snares her in its net.

One of the most thrilling aspects is the writing’s capacity to simultaneously reveal and conceal the emotional or psychological reality of the situations it describes. On several occasions, a word that the narrator seems to have intended in a figurative sense later proves to have literal truth. As she becomes unstuck from herself, so her words turn against her, at once masking and advertising the extent of her predicament.

For my money, this thrilling subversion of language and convention is what makes Boulder’s place on the International Booker Prize shortlist so well deserved. But perhaps that’s because subversiveness appeals to me. It could be that disruption is simply another kind of system and it’s in my nature to reward and promote stories that conform to it.

Either way, the fact remains that this is a wonderful, thrilling read. Slender but far from lightweight, this novel rides roughshod over heteronormative storytelling etiquette. It’s great to know that its shortlisting will mean it finds its way into many more readers’ hands.

Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2022)

Picture: ‘Merchant ships’ by Andres Alvarado on

Publication day giveaway

My second novel, Crossing Over, comes out today. Hooray! Or half hooray, at least. (Publication days are funny things: part celebration, part anti-climax; part release, part start of a whole new kind of tension.)

For me, this time round has been sweetened by a wonderful event at the venerable Dublin bookshop Hodges Figgis last night, where Irish minister of state for health Mary Butler did me the honour of formally launching the novel. (The whole thing was masterminded by Adekunle Gomez, a founder of the African Cultural Project and an extraordinary champion of sharing stories.)

It’s also been my first taste of having a book featured in a formal blog tour. I’ve been blown away with the responses from fellow book bloggers, with this review on Linda’s Book Bag, this Instagram write-up from Jen and this piece from Elspells among my favourites.

So, in order to keep the celebrations going, I’m offering five signed copies of Crossing Over to be sent anywhere in the world. To be in with a chance of winning one, please leave a comment below recommending a book that features a journey of one kind or another.

And if you think your book group might like to discuss my novel, why not enter the draw to have me attend the session? Contenders so far include book groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand…

Thank you and good luck!

Book of the month: Budi Darma

Back in 2014, I attended the award party for the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Coming out onto the street afterwards, I found myself face to face with the late Birgit Vanderbeke, whose novel The Mussel Feast, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, received a special mention that year.

I congratulated Vanderbeke and told her I’d really enjoyed the book, an unsettling account of a family waiting for the man of the house to come home. Vanderbeke, however, didn’t look thrilled. To be honest, she told me, the experience with the shortlisting was strange: she’d written that book twenty-five years before. It had been her debut. It was odd to see it celebrated as if it were new.

If Budi Darma, the author of my latest Book of the month, were still alive (like Vanderbeke, he died in 2021), I imagine he might recognise such feelings. First published 40 years ago in Indonesia, his short-story collection People from Bloomington came out for the first time in English in 2022 as a Penguin Modern Classic, translated by Tiffany Tsao.

Written during his time living in Bloomington, US, while the author was studying for a PhD, the book explores the yearning for and fear of human connection. Darma’s protagonists are observers, loitering on the fringes of others’ often bizarre and baffling lives. There is the lodger who observes a gun-toting war veteran in a neighbour’s house, the man who develops a fierce jealousy of his gregarious housemate and the literature enthusiast who takes in a poet who turns out to have an unpleasant disease.

The strangeness of the supporting characters’ actions, however, is nothing compared to the oddness of the protagonists themselves, who reveal themselves in the way they read their surroundings. Their reactions are never stable. Veering from blithe to vicious (several wish violence on acquaintances for seemingly innocuous reasons), these responses are forever catching the reader out.

At times, this can be very funny. Take this passage from early in ‘The Family M’, a story in which the narrator-protagonist takes against two young brothers living in his apartment block:

[…] my life has always been fairly peaceful. Or it was, until the day disaster struck. My car got scratched.

Here, the mismatch between the promise of ‘disaster’ and the banality of the scratched car produces such a jolt that it is almost impossible not to laugh. The starkness of the language and the rhythm (plaudits to translator Tsao here) merely heighten the effect.

Further humour stems from the unlikely and elaborate ruses the protagonists often concoct to achieve their goals or right perceived wrongs. Examples include everything from repeatedly walking down a particular street or shopping at a certain store in the hopes of falling into conversation with the object of an obsession to lobbying for Coca-Cola vending machines to be installed so that the brothers believed to have scratched the car might injure themselves on the discarded bottles.

But such subversions of expectation are also the source of the fear that flows beneath these stories, and erupts to the surface now and then. With protagonists liable to act out their savage and strange desires on occasion, we can never be certain what will happen next. The rules are unclear. Although nominally realist, there is a strange instability not only to the protagonists’ reactions but to the world itself.

Perhaps because of this flightiness, it’s tempting to try to find ways of anchoring the book by positioning it in relation to familiar works and situating it in a larger debate. Indeed, it’s notable how many pages of commentary stand between the cover and the first story – almost as if the editorial folk at Penguin worry readers won’t get the stories without a foreword, introduction and author’s preface to explain them first.

These contain some fascinating insights and reflections. Darma’s PhD was on Jane Austen, leading Intan Paramaditha to dub the collection an absurdist twist on the English novelist’s work in her foreword. Translator Tiffany Tsao, meanwhile, points to the scarcity of depictions of Western societies and characters by non-Western writers in mainstream anglophone literature (although there are plenty in books produced in other quarters). People in Bloomington, she says, could play a valuable part in conversations around cultural appropriation by making the case for redressing the balance that has historically seen writers in dominant cultures depicting those in marginalized groups without the traffic flowing the other way. Darma, on the other hand, reflects on the primacy of theme in his writing.

However, these considerations are secondary to the main point: the quality and distinctiveness of the stories. The collection is unapologetically itself. Certain readers will not like it or find it repetitive. Indeed, the stories may feel a little too interchangeable for some. But for those prepared to give themselves over to Darma’s vision, there is an exhilarating ride in store. It’s about time the English-speaking world got on board.

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Penguin, 2022)

Book of the month: Jazmina Barrera

I’m not a fan of generalisations, but when it comes to writing about pregnancy and childrearing in the anglophone world, texts tend to fall into one of two camps. There are the saccharine, prescriptive tomes typified historically by works such as Emma’s Diary, a fictional account of one woman’s pregnancy that used to be given to expectant mothers in the UK to help share information and encourage best practice. Then there are the furious polemics and tongue-in-cheek swipes at the status quo. Books in this category include works such as Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Katie Kirby’s Hurrah for Gin.

Although exceptions exist – one of my favourites being Rivka Galchen’s brilliant and moving Little Labours – and although many of these other books contain valuable material, the vast majority of works written in English carry a clear message: parenting is a fraught business, and parents, especially mothers, become infantilised in the process, whether they are diligently following instructions or stamping their feet and running amok in the face of authority figures.

Thankfully, beyond the anglosphere, things are a little different. For all that many birth-related books written in English carry illuminating and necessary information, during my pregnancies, I found literature in translation frequently offered me the most interesting perspectives on the subject. My favourite is my latest Book of the month: Christina MacSweeney’s translation of Linea Nigra by Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera.

The summary given in the publisher’s information bills the book as ‘personal essays about pregnancy interwoven with references to pregnancy in art and literature’. Don’t let this put you off: Linea Nigra is far more fascinating and accessible than this makes it sound. Indeed, although the book is grouped into four sections that might be termed ‘essays’, the structure is far freer than the elevator pitch implies.

Instead, much like Galchen (who warmly endorses the book on the cover), Barrera writes in little snatches, capturing the ‘brief illuminations’ that, as she observes, writer Susan Griffin identifies as being the main intellectual achievements possible between the myriad interruptions of the fourth trimester. Sometimes only lasting a sentence or two, these snippets mimic the rhythm of new motherhood. They mirror the fragmented, attention-scattered state of those first few months, where thinking is conducted in little gasps – a mode of being that contrasts sharply with the ‘sustained breath’ that, as Barrera points out, fellow Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli claims novel writing requires in Faces in the Crowd, a Book of the month of mine back in 2018.

Yet, though often fleeting, Barrera’s pensées are far from superficial. Gasps though they may be, they are often breathtakingly precise, skewering universal truths in a handful of words:

‘Pregnancy is a fruit bowl. The apps tell you which fruit your fetus resembles each week as it grows. But none of the apps are written in Mexico, so they don’t take into account the wide variety of fruit we have here’;

‘Everything I do, but principally everything I write during these months, the two of us do and write together. As together as it’s possible to be: one in the center of the other’;

‘Breastfeeding is an act of faith. We don’t see the milk the way we would water in a glass. We, the mothers, see the residue on the mouth of our children; we sometimes watch them devour it, but we never know how much they are drinking.’

The range of references is striking. Mary Shelley, Gustave Courbet, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rachel Cusk, Anna Prushinskaya, Shirley Jackson and Marlene Dumas are just a handful of the artists and writers whose names throng these pages. And, as so often happens when I read literature in translation, Barrera taught me something I didn’t know about my own country – in this case, the story of the St Ives-based artist Monica Sjöö, whose painting God Giving Birth so scandalised her home town in 1970 that the mayor ordered that all her work be removed from every venue in the area.

Eclecticism rather than pretension is the order of the day: Vogue and Friends both get mentions, and there is a list of breastfeeding resources at the back. A huge amount of personal experience is woven in too, both in terms of mothering and in terms of the earthquakes that provide parallels to the author’s altered state throughout the book. This is done with disarming openness. Barrera, I came to feel as I moved through the pages, places how she appears and how people may judge her far behind her desire to communicate precisely and capture the truth of what she means to say. Whatever material will help her do this is fair game.

Similarly, there is an emotionally eclectic feel to the book too. Eschewing the tendency of many anglophone pregnancy and birth books to skew either starkly positive or negative, Barrera’s text encompasses a vast spectrum of often conflicting emotions, from dark to light. Parents, seen through her lens, are not infantilised zombies either beholden to the dictates of the authorities or railing against the system but full, rounded human beings grappling with a simultaneously restricting and enlarging experience.

The result is an intellectually rigorous, beautiful, intriguing and funny work. Holistic in the best possible sense, it takes in the full gamut of emotional, mental and embodied experience, without the separation of body and brain that so often characterises Anglo-American texts. It is rare for a book to be both comforting and challenging, but Barrera and MacSweeney manage this. Illuminating, joyful and inspiring.

Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Two Lines Press, 2022)

Book of the month: GauZ’

A few months ago, I had the privilege of sharing a stage with award-winning translator and International Booker Prize judges chair, Frank Wynne. Before the event started, he mentioned that he had checked out this blog some years ago, aware that a number of the country choices were likely to be translated by him, given that there was very little available in English from much of francophone Africa.

Certainly this chimed with my experience during my 2012 quest, when some 11 UN-recognised nations – many of them French- and Portuguese-speaking African countries – had no literature in commercially available English translation that I could find. I can’t claim to have performed an exhaustive survey of Ivorian literature in English in the years since, but it is true that both my original Ivorian read and this latest Book of the month were translated by Wynne. I have read all the literature I have so far encountered from this West African country through the same person’s eyes.

On the face of it, however, the two books couldn’t be more different; whereas Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged follows the fortunes of a foul-mouthed child soldier, Standing Heavy by GauZ’ presents Paris (and by extension, the world) from the perspective of the often undocumented African security personnel, or heavies, hired to guard its shops. Yet below the surface lie many of the same tensions that drive Kourouma’s novel. The legacy of colonialism and slavery inform the power dynamics playing out in the high-class emporia of the Champs-Élysées every bit as much as on the killing fields of West Africa; under the watchful eyes of Ferdinand, Ossiri and their peers, the wealthy and the desperate come to worship the gods of global commerce, moving in the grip of forces perhaps most clearly discernible to those paid to observe.

The way Gauz’ plays with structure is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs. Reflecting the fact that this is a book about people who stay still for hours on end, he dispenses with the sort of chronology often seen in Anglo-European novels and instead presents a narrative stitched together largely from pensées and observations. These are as wide-ranging as they are witty and rich, taking in everything from the correlation between someone’s salary and the distance their coccyx typically spends from a seat, to the sales-shopping habits of babies and the historical inequities encoded into white-linen trousers. They also offer opportunities for virtuosic flourishes from the translator, my favourite being ‘the bland leading the bland’.

Another striking example proposes a genetic theory of the Antilles:

‘When slavery existed, it was vanishingly rare, and almost impossible, for a Black male slave to procreate with a White mistress. It was therefore White masters who, with Black women, created the ethnic diversity of the Antillais. And, since it is the male who assigns the sex of the male child with his Y chromosome, we can therefore affirm that all mixed-race men in the Antilles definitely carry a Caucasian Y chromosome. Abstract for the theory: in the Antilles, man is White, woman is Black.’

The cumulative effect of these reflections is powerful. Essentially, the narrative schools the reader in the coping mechanisms of those paid to stand and watch. ‘In order to survive in this job, to keep things in perspective, to avoid lapsing into cosy idleness or, on the contrary, fatuous zeal and bitter aggressiveness, requires either knowing how to empty your mind of every thought higher than instinct and spinal reflex or having a very engrossing inner life.’ The latter is what the narrative models. Reading it, we learn in real time the rhythms of a life on the margins.

The tightrope that Gauz’ walks is presenting collective experience without allowing his characters to collapse into facelessness. The individual impressions from the shop floor help with this, but would probably be too flimsy on their own. As a result, he weights them with accounts of historical and political shifts in the latter half of the twentieth century that had a bearing on the experiences of West African immigrants to France.

At times, the result is a little diffuse and perhaps hard for those more used to plot-driven novels to follow, yet an inner logic is at work. For those who stick with it, interconnectedness is the prevailing impression – a web of ties, obligations and loyalties that extends across the globe. One that encompasses not only the standing heavies and those they watch, but also the reader.

Standing Heavy (Debout-payé) by GauZ’, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press, 2022)

Picture: ‘Avenue des Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe, Place Charles de Gaulle, Paris’ by David McKelvey on

Book of the month: Maggie Shen King

Wedding Parade

A few months ago, to celebrate the publication of the new UK edition of Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country, I ran a giveaway. The terms of entry were simple: all those who wanted the chance to receive a signed copy simply had to leave a comment recommending me a book.

The response was wonderful and it was great to receive input from readers all over the planet, just as I did when I first set out to read the world in 2012. The suggestions were as intriguing as they were varied and will no doubt keep me busy for some time. However, they have already yielded some cracking reads and my last book of the month of 2022 is one of them, put forward by Lauren.

As its title implies, An Excess Male by Taiwanese-American author Maggie Shen King is built around imagining a world in which there are too many men. Set in an authoritarian, near-future mainland China, it envisions a society where the gender-selection practices driven by directives such as the one-child policy (but also at play in countries like India) have skewed the ratio of women to men so drastically that government-sanctioned polyandry is instituted in order to give as many men as possible the opportunity to marry and reproduce.

The novel focuses on one family in the process of interviewing for a third husband – ‘going to the max’ as it’s known in the world of the book. Told variously through the eyes of the prospective suitor Wei-guo, wife May-ling, and her two existing husbands, brothers Hann and XX, the narrative explores the experience of being trapped in a system that controls and subverts basic human needs and desires, exposing numerous secrets along the way.

Essentially, this book is about finding a way to say the unsayable, and live an authentic life in the face of the systematic stripping of human dignity and autonomy. As with Crystal Boys, my 2012 Taiwanese read, homosexuality (which was only declassified as a mental illness in China in 2001) becomes a shorthand for this. In the world of the novel, men who love men are known as ‘wilfully sterile’ and are sent for re-education, as well as denied various rights.

The speculative, near-future setting is also a powerful tool. By creating a society that does not quite exist, Shen King is able to express criticisms, depict hypocrisy and portray tensions much more directly and tellingly than a realist novel would allow. As Megan Walsh argues in her brilliant book, The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why it Matters, sci-fi has been especially successful in mainland China partly because of the wiggle room it allows authors – it’s no coincidence that Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, became the first novel to be a bestseller both at home and abroad. For an author like Shen King, raised in a territory that has not been allowed to assert its sovereignty on the global stage for decades, the attraction is clear.

Yet any reader who interprets An Excess Male purely as a criticism of China’s approach to Taiwan is missing a great deal. Many of the anxieties around surveillance and the intrusion of technology into private relationships find their echo in contemporary anglophone society. The same can be said of various approaches to categorising and labelling people, and thereby limiting their freedoms and opportunities. The fact, for example, that being placed on a mental-health watchlist is seen as the first step towards being excluded from mainstream society resonates uncomfortably with many practices in the so-called Free World. Much as many anglophone readers might like to, we cannot get away with simply branding China as the villain here: there are problems to address in our societies too.

This subtlety is also evident in the writing and in the way the story plays out. As the best dystopian fiction tends to do, the novel reveals flashes of beauty in brokenness. Suffocating though it is, the tightly controlled system of polyandry allows for closeness and even whole kinds of intimacy unknown in more liberal societies; the fraternal bond between some co-husbands, for example, is a touching and sustaining thing, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. There are also some lovely touches in the writing, such as the foreign nuns who appear at one point, speaking a kind of accented language riddled with the habits usually associated with Chinese stereotypes. XX’s perspective, as a character on the autism spectrum, is also, for the most part, deftly handled.

The result is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Drawing on her intimate knowledge of both Taiwanese and US society, Shen King creates a story that neatly bridges the gap between the two. In so doing, she brings readers everywhere face to face with one of the most fundamental human dilemmas: how to survive when your personal needs go against what is perceived to be the greater good.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (Harper Voyager, 2017)

Picture: ‘Wedding Parade’ by Cormac Heron on

Book of the month: Tesfaye Gebreab

A few months ago, Delina posted the following comment on this blog:

 I’m from Eritrea. First of all, I LOVED your project, it’s brilliant! And second, I noticed that for Eritrea you read books written by Eritrean diaspora. While that’s interesting too, I want to suggest some books that may provide the perspective of someone who lived most of their lives here. I don’t think you can find them easily in London so I would like to send you copies through some relatives who live in London. I hope that’s ok. The books I have in mind are:

Two weeks in the trenches by Alemseged Tesfai
The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab (translated into English by Alemseged Tesfai)

Let me know what you think!

I was intrigued for several reasons: Delina’s kindness and enthusiasm; the idea of reading books rarely available to readers like me; and the fact that, as Delina rightly pointed out, I had found it impossible to find anything I could read by a writer based inside Eritrea back when I read the world in 2012.

There’s a good reason for this: Eritrea has long been one of the globe’s most isolated and restricted countries. Two years before my quest, it was judged by Index on Censorhip to be the country with the least press freedom in the world; even journalists inside North Korea had marginally more leeway than those based in this east African nation. Even now, Reporters Without Borders ranks it second to last in the World Press Freedom Index.

As a result, when Delina’s package arrived, containing copies of the titles she had recommended with personal dedications to me by their authors, along with a postcard from Delina bearing an Eritrean stamp, I lost no time in exploring what I quickly knew would be my next book of the month.

Billed as a novel, The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab translated by Alemseged Tesfai is an ambitious work. After a brief prologue describing an encounter that sparked the aim of telling ‘the history of one hundred years spread out […] like the camel caravans of Denkalia, Semhar, Barka, Halhal, Mensa’e, Habab, Senhit…’ the main narrative begins in the famine of 1888, when its title character is a small child. It then follows his fortunes and those of his descendants as they grapple with the many traumas and outrages visited on their region in the following century.

In his foreword, translator and fellow novelist Alemseged Tesfai (author of the other book Delina sent me) describes the hesitation he felt at taking on this project, which required him to work between this third language, Amharic, and his second language, English. His concerns were also echoed by Delina in an email she sent to me after the books arrived, in which she warned me that there may be errors and typos because of the difficulties surrounding publishing in Eritrea and said she hoped I wouldn’t be put off by these.

In actual fact, the text is largely sound. Although there are odd slips and a few word choices that feel questionable (but may of course be accurate reflections of the sense in the original), the narrative is in much better shape than many books I’ve encountered by first-language English speakers.

The challenges The Nurenebi File presents to readers raised on mainstream anglophone literature are of a different order (and say as much about the limited circulation of the world’s stories as they do about this work).

Firstly, this book does not obey the conventions that underpin the majority of novels in the English-speaking world. It veers between registers, plunging into political discussion, picking fights with other accounts and commenting on prevailing assumptions about Eritrean history. Passages that would not be out of place in an academic textbook sit alongside sections that ring with bombastic praise for Eritrea’s resistance fighters. There are photographs of many of the individuals and groups mentioned.

What’s more, although Nurenebi’s disappearance, and the efforts of his descendants to find out what happened to him and carry on his legacy form a guide rope that helps lead the reader through the pages, there is an uncertainty to the status of the narrative that makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with its context to know how to take it. It is unclear whether the prologue is written in Gebreab’s voice, describing a real-world encounter, or from the perspective of an unnamed fictional narrator who takes it upon themself to tell this story.

There are extremely powerful passages that will speaker to any reader. Many of these concern Nurenebi’s personal story, but that is not always the case. The account of the brutal amputation of the right hands and left feet of 461 Medri Bahri (Eritrean) men who fought on the Italian side against Emperor Menelik is extraordinarily harrowing and vivid. What’s more, there are many telling reflections on the effects of colonialism and the way oppressed people can sometimes become conditioned to further their own persecution, welcoming enemies as liberators. Inconsistent though the storytelling style may be, the whole work is charged with an urgency to communicate that bursts through at these key moments, sweeping the reader along.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Anglo-American readers face with this book is something that the story itself exists to challenge: the sheer unfamiliarity of these events to the majority of people around the world. This book, as translator Tesfai states, ‘has brought forward forgotten or shelved chapters from Eritrean history’. If that is true for Eritreans it applies tenfold to readers from other traditions.

Reading it, I was struck anew by how cumulative our sense of history is. We don’t encounter stories about the past in isolation but in the context of thousands of other narratives that have informed our cultural compasses and references throughout our lives. Consequently, when we come across a fact-based account in which none of the figures are familiar, few of the place names call associations to mind, and hardly any of the events connect to episodes we have heard of before, we struggle.

This is precisely why books like this and translations like Tesfai’s are important – and why I am so grateful to Delina for going to such trouble to get this story to me. In a world in which certain narratives are amplified and broadcast ubiquitously while many others are sidelined, silenced or erased, it is vital that accounts such as this expand, challenge and reshape our awareness of events.

This book does not obey the conventions of the European novel form, but then why should it? As the narrative makes clear, European influences have served the community it stems from appallingly. It is surely fitting, then, that in Tesfaye Gebreab’s hands this venerable export from the global north should be twisted, broken and refashioned into something that serves the Eritrean community. If readers like me struggle to keep up, then that is our problem.

The Nurenebi File by Tesfaye Gebreab, translated from the Amharic by Alemseged Tesfai (Books and Media Center, Asmara, 2021)

Book of the month: Kristín Ómarsdóttir

This has been a particularly exciting month for me. As Literary Explorer in Residence of the Cheltenham Literature Festival for the second year running, I got to spend nine days in conversation with a fascinating array of writers and storytellers from all over the world.

There were too many wonderful events to list here. However, some personal highlights included an hour-long discussion with Japanese sensation Mieko Kawakami (facilitated by the brilliant interpreter Bethan Jones), my Read the World interview with Kenyan author and activist Nanjala Nyabola, and talking about writing the refugee experience with Dutch writer Rodaan Al Galidi and Caryl Lewis, author of Martha, Jack and Shanco, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies, which was the final book of my year of reading the world back in 2012.

Then, on the last day of the festival, I chaired a discussion between two fabulous novelists, including the author of my latest Book of the month. Guest curated by bestselling US novelist Celeste Ng, whose latest novel All Our Missing Hearts presents a bleak vision of an America in which discrimination against those with Chinese heritage is enshrined in law, the theme of the session was dystopian fiction around the world. Joining me to discuss this fascinating topic were US debut novelist Jessamine Chan, whose compelling The School for Good Mothers has already been named by The New Yorker as one of the best books of 2022 so far, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir author of Swanfolk, translated from the Icelandic by Vala Thorodds.

Set in a country that no longer exists, the novel follows Elísabet, an employee of the Special Unit of the Ministry of the Interior, whose life is thrown into chaos when she encounters a hybrid species of swan women living in the woods near her home. Caught between the tightly controlled existence required by her employer and the weird excesses and demands of creatures that defy the logic she has been taught to believe, Elísabet must find a way to bridge the gulf between these two worlds.

As this summary suggests, there is a mythic and even surreal quality to the narrative. In our discussion, Ómarsdóttir was open about the fact that she draws heavily on Icelandic fairy tales and legends in her writing, and this shows. Not only are the swanfolk themselves – human from the waist up and avian from the hips down – like something out of mythology, but the mysterious nature of the world in which we find ourselves and the lack of certainty over what is real and how all this came to be lend the book a dreamlike feel.

As readers, the ground is constantly shifting under our feet. The double dystopia that unfolds before us – Elísabet’s stifling daily existence and the swan people’s need to live secretly for fear of persecution – plays by rules that are never fully explained. Instead, hints are dropped. We learn that Elísabet is under constant surveillance, beholden to her constantly shifting employee rating and afraid of being promoted. Similarly, the swan people explain little of their culture and mores, but veer between violence and tenderness with alarming unpredictability.

Sometimes, the result is very funny, particularly when this subversion of expectations takes place on the linguistic level. Ómarsdóttir and Thorodds crash together registers and concepts in a way that sometimes made me laugh with surprise. Humour in this book, though, comes with a health warning. For much of it, Elísabet is engaged in writing a report on the city’s stand-up comedians. Yet when the comedians finally appear, they give a performance that is anything but funny. (‘I’m a very serious person,’ said Ómarsdóttir when I asked her about this, with a twinkle in her eye.)

There are also moments of extreme consternation, many of them centring around the question of legacy and motherhood. The swanfolk, whose egg yield has dwindled to almost nothing, fear extinction – a plight that put me in mind of Jacqueline Harpman’s dystopian tour de force I Who Have Never Known Men, translated by Ros Schwartz, and also made for a brilliant discussion with Jessamine Chan, whose The School for Good Mothers presents a nightmare US in which parents found to be in breach of their responsibilities are sent to re-education camps.

Yet in Swanfolk even a reading that posits the book as an investigation of motherhood is not left to stand unchallenged: when an egg is delivered into Elísabet’s safekeeping at the ministry, her colleagues cast doubt on its origins, intimating that the swan people may be all in her mind.

As a result, we are constantly second-guessing the story and ourselves. Words become unmoored from the meanings we are used to giving them. Like Elísabet, we begin to doubt our instincts and lose the power to articulate our thoughts. Observations glimmer in the narrative and wriggle out of reach. And lest we are tempted to settle on anything concrete, the book admonishes us: ‘Books that search for a conclusion and closure are at risk of disappointing their readers. Conclusions dampen the impulse to innovate and to imagine.’

Perhaps the most telling insight into what’s going on at the heart of this complex, troubling and surprising read came during my discussion with its author. Ómarsdóttir revealed that, in her view, modern society is like a spaceship speeding away from reality. It could be that we need storytelling like this to bring us back down to Earth.

Swanfolk by Kristín Ómarsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Vala Thorodds (Harvill Secker, 2022).

Photo by Monica Dunkley

Book of the month: Sibusiso Nyembezi

One of the great privileges of my 2012 Year of Reading the World was the chance it gave me to read a number of stories not usually available to English-language speakers. Whether these came in the form of pre-existing unpublished manuscripts (as in the case of the books I read for countries such as the Comoros and Turkmenistan) or translations created specially for me by generous volunteers (as with my pick for São Tomé and Príncipe), reading these works was an extraordinary experience, like being granted glimpses of a world those around me couldn’t see.

My latest Book of the month is another such marvel currently off-limits to the English-speaking world. Although it was published by the now-defunct Aflame Books in 2008, it has long been out of print, with only the occasional rare second-hand copy popping up now and then.

I received mine in the armful of books that Aflame’s founder Richard Bartlett generously handed to me in 2012, when he shared with me the manuscript of the astonishing Ualalapi, my pick for Mozambique. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have time to read the extra novels that year, having only 1.87 days for each of the titles I featured in my original quest. And, as so often happens, I shoved the others onto a shelf, with the intention that I would get to them eventually.

They might have stayed there for another ten years had a discussion I am due to take part in next month at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with a little-known author (cough, Booker prize-winner Damon Galgut) not prompted me to go through my collections to remind myself of my other South African reads. There it was, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi, a novel selected by an international jury as one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century: The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg by Sibusiso Nyembezi.

In many ways, the novel, which was published in its original language in 1961, is a classic stranger-comes-to-town tale. In the remote village of Nyanyadu, Mr Zeph Mkhwanazi receives a letter from a rich man he has never met, who tells him that he plans to visit and asks Mkhwanazi to convene a meeting of his fellow farmers so that the rich man can set out his plans to use his wealth and influence to improve their lives. Consternation, amusement and upheaval ensue: the arrival of the visitor exposes fault lines in the community, throwing Mkhwanazi and his family into crisis, until at last the village bands together to restore equilibrium.

Yet, though the arc of the story may sound familiar to anglophone readers, the way it is told is anything but. For one thing, the pacing is entirely different to that of most English-language novels: the opening pages, for example, focus mostly on the logistical challenges of reaching Nyanyadu and the complicated arrangements for the collection of the post.

There is also a striking approach to dialogue. Conversations stretch for pages, with many of the same facts and opinions rehearsed multiple times.

These things might sound off-putting or even dull, but in Nyembezi’s hands they are a joy. The narrative is sharp and witty, using a roving close third-person voice (not a million miles from the writing style in Galgut’s The Promise) to expose the inconsistencies and absurdities of the characters. What’s more, the repetition of certain details only makes them more amusing – the fact, for example, that the unknown stranger is ‘an esquire’ and the bewilderment caused by his strange name, Ndebenkulu, which, we are told, means ‘the one endowed with long lips.’

All this provides a wonderful build up to the arrival of the rich man himself. His advent is a masterclass in comic writing. Pompous, ridiculous, eager to tell anyone who will listen about his regular correspondence with prominent white people, and appalled by the prospect of having to travel to his host’s house in a ‘makeshift cart’, Ndebenkulu bursts onto the page. Many of his interactions are laugh-out-loud funny.

Yet Nyembezi is too subtle a writer to satisfy himself with merely amusing his reader. The ground is constantly shifting in this story, showing us how self-doubt, pride and half-forgotten grudges fuel suspicion, break and forge allegiances, and open old wounds. As Mkhwanazi’s neighbours and family members pitch in their opinions on the newcomer, Nyembezi traces the threads that bind the community and stress tests them with the application of the kind of financial, political and social pressures that govern all our lives, making this story of the arrival of an oddball in a remote community a universal reflection of humanity.

The book is, in short, a classic: funny, engrossing, wise and timeless. It ought to be available in English and celebrated alongside the works of its author’s more internationally renowned compatriots. Publishers, please, make it so!

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg (Inkinsela yase Mungungundlovu) by Sibusiso Nyembezi, translated from the Zulu by Sandile Ngidi (Aflame Books, 2008)