Book of the month: Nanjala Nyabola

Although most of the books I feature on this blog are fiction, one of the titles I refer to most often from my 2012 quest to read a book from every country is a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by the Togolese explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie, translated by James Kirkup. This joyful account of teenage Kpomassie’s real-life odyssey through Africa and Europe to go and live with the Inuit never fails to bring a smile to my face when I think of it, and I can still feel all the enthusiasm that went into my initial review nine years ago. I loved its curiosity and fearlessness, the optimism with which Kpomassie pursued his goal, and the humour with which he exposed the quirks of the people and societies he encountered.

Recent years have seen some welcome additions to travel writing in English by authors with similarly illuminating and underrepresented perspectives. Two of my favourites are Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johnny Pitts and Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders by Li Juan, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan. Nevertheless, non-white and non-Western accounts of travelling are still relatively rare in mainstream anglophone publishing – something that my latest Book of the month makes a powerful case to change.

As its subtitle makes clear, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola is not a memoir but rather a collection of think pieces inspired by the author’s journeys through some 70 countries. Although a number of the chapters centre around particular trips – to Burkina Faso, to the DRC, to Botswana in search of the legacy of Bessie Head (whose A Question of Power also featured in my 2012 quest) – this is a book about the larger questions that arise from moving through the world. In particular, it focuses on what that experience is like when you come from a demographic that is commonly restricted and denied the rights granted freely to those in more privileged groups.

Nyabola’s arguments are as fearless and intrepid as her journeys have been. She has no hesitation in taking down some of the world’s most powerful players – exposing everything from the hypocrisy at the heart of the sort of aid organisations she used to work for, and the racism embedded in the visa system, to the rottenness of an international news industry predicated upon representing black and brown people in ways ‘at odds with how the communities in question may see themselves’, alongside the complacency of many of us who imagine ourselves to be anti-racist.

Her femaleness and blackness sit at the heart of the collection. Being different to the default world traveller can be a double-edged sword. While the frustration and exhaustion that constantly running up against people’s assumptions causes is clear, Nyabola’s reflections on the access that her appearance sometimes gives her to experiences and neighbourhoods that white-orientated guidebooks would brand no-go areas are thought-provoking.

Nor does she exempt herself from criticism when it comes to the problematic stereotypes that often attend international travel. ‘I am no better than those I would challenge,’ she writes in her account of her summer in Haiti. ‘I take pictures that I probably shouldn’t take. I am afraid of the water coming from the tap. I surreptitiously glance over my shoulder when I am on my long, lonely walks.’ Even in her home continent, she often used to find herself in the grip of extreme wariness: ‘I’m ashamed to admit that I was even afraid of Africa: the Africans of CNN, warring Africans who killed each other on a whim, who hated women and did violence to them, who ate monkeys and spread Ebola, whose bodies were ravaged with AIDS, and who were always waiting to steal from each other.’

The unpicking of the reasons for these assumptions is one of the sources of the book’s great power. ‘I started to appreciate that, because I had been uncritically consuming other people’s versions of Africa – shaped by particulars of those people’s existence – I had learnt to be afraid of it. […] Later, I would go back to my travel guides and realise something that today seems so painfully obvious: the vast majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men.’

As a result of her almost exclusive exposure to a certain kind of narrative, to ‘the dominance of a normative standard determined by a certain eye’, the view Nyabola had internalised not only of the world but also of herself and those around her was slanted, problematic, incomplete. Her description of her journey to free herself from this and see the world in terms more reflective of her lived reality is a masterclass in self-awareness, curiosity, questioning and personal growth.

We can’t all travel as widely as Nyabola has done. Most of us will never spend more than a decade hitching our way to Greenland like Kpomassie, or pass months living with nomadic herders in the manner of Li Juan. That’s why we need writers like this and why we need more of their stories in the world’s most published language. Because, as Nyabola so clearly demonstrates, when it comes to living well in the world, it is not what you see but how you see that matters most of all. ‘We are bigger than what we hear about each other,’ writes Nyabola, reflecting on the way different black communities’ views of one another are diminished by being filtered through prevailing white narratives. How might things be different if we all read about travelling the world through various eyes?

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst, 2020)

Picture: ‘airport‘ by whity on flickr.com

Book of the month: Ayu Utami

In the ten years since I set out to read the world, I have interacted with thousands of book lovers, writers, academics and curious readers around the globe. Many of the most illuminating of these discussions have been with translators – people who, by virtue of having expertise in two or more languages and extensive experience working on texts, are able to shed light on how books travel and what comes into English, and often draw my attention to gems that would otherwise pass me by.

So I was delighted when, a few weeks back, an email arrived from Irfan Kortschak, a translator based in Jakarta, sharing some thoughts about Indonesian literature. Chief among his recommendations was the work of Ayu Utami, a groundbreaking novelist, whose Saman (1998) is credited with ushering in a sea change in the nation’s storytelling by daring to deal with sex and politics in a way that was previously off-limits for female authors. This shift is known as sastra wangi, with some people at the time anecdotally referring to the women writers in the movement as the ‘cliterati’.

‘Ayu is an old friend,’ wrote Kortschak. ‘She’s quite involved in the arts and literature center that I translate for. You do have to remember that she became a best-selling author in the final years of the Soeharto dictatorship, when a sort of Victorian morality prevailed and it wasn’t acceptable for women to talk about their sexual experiences. Her books were radically shocking and she often appeared on television, where each time she would appall the audiences by saying she had no intention of getting married, by talking about her experiences with men[…] and so on. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive death threats.[…] I’m happy to say that Indonesia seems to have moved on a bit since then!’

Billed as a novel, although perhaps more accurately a collection of interlinked short stories (written in markedly different registers), Saman, translated by Pam Allen, presents the experiences of four female friends and a Roman Catholic priest, who is the title character. With sections set in 1996, 1990 and 1983, and moving between New York and Indonesia, it reveals how each of them negotiates the tightrope strung between family expectations, social mores, political obligations, spiritual promptings and personal inclination, using their time in the ostensibly more liberated US as a foil for their lives back home.

In her extremely frank and illuminating ‘Note on the Translation’, in which she writes about the challenge of not allowing her sense of political correctness to distort the English-language version, Allen describes the work as ‘a visual panorama rather than a plot-driven narrative’. Although understandable, this is slightly misleading: while Saman may lack the sort of overarching story thread many anglophone readers will be used to, there is great urgency in many of the sections. Whether she is writing about a thirty-year-old virgin waiting for her married lover to appear in Central Park or a priest struggling to prevent a mentally disabled young woman from being abused in a rural village, Utami has the knack of getting us on the side of her characters.

It’s interesting that Allen found her sense of taboo to be a stumbling block while translating the book, as the differing perspectives and biases that contrasting life experiences and expectations give us is a key theme. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which, although earnest in its desire to ameliorate the situation of oppressed people in Indonesia somehow fails to grasp the multi-layered nature of that experience:

‘Despite HRW’s sincere concern about these problems, its office seems so remote – an entire world away. I can’t imagine how the people who work there – having never experienced such problems themselves – can have a feel for what is happening so far away – the violence, and the humor too, that happens there. Could they really believe it possible that a young woman like Marsinah might be brutally beaten and left to die for having the audacity to question the fairness of her wages? Can they imagine how they would feel about the intelligence investigation that followed her murder and that resulted in innocent people being tortured until they falsely confessed – thereby enabling the real murderer to get off scot-free?

‘At the same time, people in the office also seem to have an exaggerated notion of the effectiveness of an oppressive system like the one in Indonesia; they don’t seem to realize, for example, that it’s not all that difficult to obtain the books of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other banned authors. Or that you can throw a small party for your friends in jail and give them a laptop computer or a mobile phone! I don’t see Indonesia as you do, as a machine of oppression. Instead, I envisage our country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum.’

The insight about humour struck me as particularly thought-provoking. It is a truism in translation that jokes are hard to move between languages. Might this sometimes not merely be a technical issue but a function of the fact that in the struggle to envisage people in distant places and traditions as fully human, humour is one of the first elements to slip from our grasp?

Utami and Allen certainly do their level best to combat this. This book is strikingly funny – often irreverently so. Whether it deals with a bet that requires the loser to embarrass herself by going and buying a box of novelty condoms or self-deception around weight loss and diet, the narrative leaves us in no doubt that its characters have a strong sense of the ridiculous and no trouble sending themselves up. The ability to shock is not the sole preserve of liberal Westerners, we learn, often with a chuckle.

Yet this is no lightweight amusement. Time and again, Utami and Allen nail insights that take us to the heart of the events portrayed, reminding us that the world moves differently, depending on where you find yourself: ‘It rotates clockwise if we imagine ourselves standing in the South Pole looking to the other pole. And if we were in the North Pole it would rotate in the opposite direction. Weird, eh?’

Reading Saman is not without its challenges: veering from satirical to realist to fable-like, the narrative keeps rewriting its own rules. Things happen in some sections that would not be possible in others. What’s more, as is often the case with works split between several perspectives and periods, some passages are more successful than others.

But this, surely, is no surprise in a novel that sets out to present experiences ranging from banter with friends to interrogation under torture. We human beings are, after all, not seamless, through-written works. Anyone seeking to portray us honestly must find a way to reflect this unevenness. The violence, and the humour too.

Saman by Ayu Utami, translated from the Indonesian by Pam Allen (Equinox Publishing, 2005)

Picture: ‘Kalian Kenang by Hugh Dellar‘ by Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape on flickr.com

Book of the month: Gerty Dambury

One of the first problems I had to solve when I set myself the madcap challenge of reading a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly how many countries my world contained (not something on which everybody agrees). Given the premise of the project, it was logical to order the quest by nation and, to this day, the titles on this blog are categorised by the UN-recognised state with which they are most closely aligned.

As the years have gone by, however, those country categories have begun to chafe. The perennial problem of what makes a book ‘from’ a particular nation – little to do with setting, and mostly to do with author heritage and perspective for me, though there are exceptions on the list – is just the start. There is the issue of the genrefication of national literatures – often a side effect of the marketing efforts of big western publishers, which, at its worst, means our ideas of the sort of writing that comes from particular regions is heavily skewed by a handful of breakout bestsellers. And there’s the problem that many territories fall under the umbrella of former colonial powers, meaning that their works can easily be overlooked.

My latest book of the month is a good example. Written by Guadeloupian theatre director, poet and novelist Gerty Dambury, and translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, The Restless will sit under ‘France’ on my list. Yet its authors and subject matter hail from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanning the run up to an outbreak of violence when talks failed between management and a construction-workers union in May 1967, the novel centres around Émilienne as she waits for her father to come home and grows increasingly anxious that her schoolteacher, Madame Ladal, has disappeared. The narrative is directed by Émilienne’s eight siblings, who take on the role of callers in a Caribbean quadrille, ushering forward an increasingly rebellious gaggle of characters – living and dead – to present their versions of what is going on. As the story whirls faster and order breaks down, Dambury reveals the interconnectedness of events and the way that injustice echoes down the decades, loading seemingly inconsequential details with meaning.

Voices are at the heart of this narrative. With so many characters clamouring to have their say, it is testament to Dambury and Miller’s skill that it is usually easy to know who is narrating. Indeed, in the case of the irreverent Nono, a dead, nonagenarian who remains peeved that one of her legs was removed before she was put in her coffin and spends a lot of time looking for it, you often recognise the voice from the first few words.

Yet, though the text abounds with rulebreakers and even descends into near-anarchy at certain points, the writing is tightly controlled. Reticence has as much power here as eloquence, with the gaps left for the reader to infer cruelties in the margins revealing something of what it is like to live in the shadow of monstrous injustices that have never been acknowledged or addressed. This technique is neatly mirrored in Miller’s decision to explain some but not all of the Creole dialogue in the book – this is a text of half-heard whispers, of stories muffled in the telling.

When Dambury chooses to articulate something, the writing is astonishingly precise. Take this beautiful reframing of old people’s habit of repeating themselves as ‘work that starts when we turn sixty’:

‘We take apart the seams; we unroll the balls of yarn. Other people think we’re just repeating ourselves, rehashing and rambling, but the truth is, nature doesn’t give us a choice. It’s as though everything is hardwired in our genes; you have to travel back in time.’

Or this consideration of why many of the characters hold back from challenging the status quo until violence becomes their only option:

‘If you really dig into this story, you’ll see that everyone has a hell of a burden to carry, just getting up in the morning and continuing to live their lives[…] – and that impression of never quite getting on top of things, that blacks are damned for all eternity, from century to century.

‘They have to be clever, tricky, and act like a fox – but all that leaves scars on the spirit. You can’t forget the other side of the coin: hating yourself for what you’ve become, for constantly questioning your life. You can end up detesting yourself, imagining what others think of you, and then rebelling violently. You demand respect by brandishing a knife, consideration by carrying a revolver. You take revenge for slights you’ve only invented in your mind.’

With so much pain and injustice underlying this narrative – drawn from real-world events, many of the facts of which have only recently come to light – it would be easy for Dambury’s novel to leave us with anger. But Dambury is too large-hearted a writer for this. Although the outrage these events call forth is justified and necessary, her novel looks beyond this, to a time ‘when the fury started to abate, when people could start seeing each other again’.

The recognition of one another’s common humanity is the key to resolution, she suggests. And the secret to this recognition? Storytelling. ‘When you’re human, you just can’t stop yourself from telling your own story.’

If I had to sum up nearly ten years of international literary exploration and what I’ve learnt from the hundreds of books classified by country on this blog, that would be my conclusion too.

The Restless (Les rétifs) by Gerty Dambury, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: Guadeloupe_Février_2018_157 by Michel Marie on flickr.com

Book of the month: Anke Stelling

This month, I faced a difficult decision. There were two titles that I would have loved to feature on this blog.

The first was Argentinian writer Federico Falco’s exquisite short-story collection, A Perfect Cemetery, featuring a wonderful postscript by its translator Jennifer Croft. Quite apart from the stories themselves (mini-novellas, really, given their depth and complexity), this essay ‘On Conversation’ contains some of the most illuminating writing about the translation process that I have read.

‘Translation is an encounter between two human beings that takes place in words that belong to different systems,’ writes Croft. ‘I have intuitively recreated on the page in English what I have seen in the movie versions of these stories in my mind. Falco wrote the screenplay, but I was the director of these sweeping films, just as you have been – as every reader will be. I hear the characters as I must, informed by all the people I have known and loved in all the places I have lived.’

Phew. With writing as powerful as that, authors of fiction had better watch out: there’s a risk that some stories might be overshadowed by the translators’ notes that follow them (although in Falco’s case, the primary text more than holds its own, it has to be said, and is well worth seeking out).

In the end, however, I plumped for reviewing Higher Ground, the first novel by the award-winning German writer Anke Stelling to appear in English, translated by Lucy Jones. The novel follows middle-aged writer Resi as she grapples with the news that she, her artist husband and their four children are soon to be evicted from a Berlin flat controlled by a friend. Struggling to face up to the implications of this bombshell, she sets out to try to write a warts-and-all portrayal of life for her teenage daughter, Bea. In so doing, she reveals cracks stretching back across the decades that threaten to yawn wide enough to engulf the whole family.

Mothers in literature often fall into one of two camps: they are either saints or witches. Stelling neatly sidesteps this. By having Resi narrate in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style, which more than once made me think of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, she is able to portray both the horrors and beauties of the maternal condition. ‘Let me hold you close to my breast. And remember – you have to get away,’ Resi writes to Bea in the opening chapter, and the novel leaves us in no doubt as to the truth of this statement.

This is an extremely funny book. All credit to translator Lucy Jones here, for the humour is largely in the writing, with rhythms, bathos and the subversion of expectations all delivering laughs. Stelling is an expert on the ways human beings deceive themselves and how we often betray these lies unconsciously. Time and again, we witness Resi self-sabotaging and setting herself up to fail even as she pledges to do better – an endearing trait that serves to counteract some of her more obnoxious flights of arrogance.

Nowhere is this dishonesty more evident than when it comes to issues of class and privilege, which form central threads in the narrative. Beholden to her more affluent friends, Resi is forced time and again to confront the limits of fellow feeling where money and life chances are concerned. Cleverly, Stelling resists the temptation purely to punch upwards, choosing instead to reveal hypocrisy and blind spots on both sides. Resi, we learn, might not be so hard pressed if she were able to unbend a little; but then, of course, she would not be Resi.

There is also much joyous material connected to the business of being a writer and the strange, destabilising experience of watching your work go out into the world. Again, Resi’s struggle to comprehend her friends’ indignation at her published criticism of their lifestyle makes a nice foil for the book’s reflections on readers’ often wrongheaded engagement with texts.

‘I am sorry that everything is so disjointed. I’d like to be stricter, have a more straightforward narrative, and be a comfort for all those in need. But I am who I am, and I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis.[…] That’s why this is exactly the opposite of a well-formed, elegantly written novel,’ laments Resi.

Of course, the lady protests too much. Higher Ground is a deftly structured, ingenious piece of fiction that manages not to advertise its cleverness in the way that some books by writers with more favourable conditions than Resi might now and then have done. What starts as a seemingly random swirl of reflections, circles ever more closely around the same themes, drawing the threads tighter until the web appears.

The result is a hugely entertaining, satisfying and thought-provoking novel. A really wonderful read.

Higher Ground (Schäfchen im Trockenen) by Anke Stelling, translated from the German by Lucy Jones (Scribe, 2021)

Picture: ‘Berlin’ by Patrick Nouhailler on flickr.com

Book of the month: Véronique Tadjo

Some books find you at the right time. My latest featured novel is a good example. Coming into my hands shortly before the year anniversary of the first UK coronavirus lockdown, In the Company of Men by the Côte d’Ivorian poet, novelist and artist Véronique Tadjo, translated by Tadjo with John Cullen, offers a salutary reading experience and sheds fresh light on the pandemic.

First published in French in 2017, the book centres on the Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014-16, claiming thousands of lives. Told in multiple voices – from those of medics and aid workers, through victims, to trees in the forest and even the virus itself – it provides a startling, holistic and shaming look at the way human beings use and abuse the natural world, forcing the reader to acknowledge the role of the resultant imbalance in causing sickness.

Novel is really the wrong word for this book: it is an ecosystem of a narrative. Registers vary from the mythic to the mundane. Reportage runs alongside the prophetic pronouncements of the baobab tree, which sits in judgement on the arguments of the virus and the bat, as each puts forward its view on where the blame should lie for the catastrophe the book portrays.

It could feel bitty, but Tadjo’s skill shines through in the way she makes each segment contingent and connected. Just as ‘Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small,’ so each account exists in relation to those around it, informed, enriched and sometimes undermined by what follows or goes before.

There are plenty of shocks along the way. From the accounts of the Ebola orphans shunned by their communities to the practical and psychological difficulties of dealing with infectious corpses, not to mention hospital doctors reduced to asking patients to go out and buy their own medical supplies, this book does not pull its punches. The passages concerning the financial roadblocks on vaccine development, when considered against the lightning-fast response to a virus menacing the affluent global north, make for particularly uncomfortable reading.

However, perhaps the greatest jolts come not from what is strange but rather what is familiar in the experiences described. So much of what we have all lived through over the past twelve months is present in this pages – economic upheaval, the lottery of how someone will respond to treatment, conspiracy theories, the concern for children missing out on education. When reading this book, what has felt like a voyage into the unknown for many of us reveals itself to be a path already trodden by millions – a realisation that makes the following appeal by a regional governor particularly chilling:

‘If I, as someone on the ground, were asked to make a comment, I would address the international community. I’d tell them that fear can provoke a strong reaction, which will in turn free up enormous resources and placate public opinion. But the outcome will not necessarily be the best in the long run. […] Are we better prepared if disaster strikes again, or has everything fallen into oblivion already, crowded out by the thick bustle of our days?’

This book will present challenges for readers used to anglophone novels. Tadjo does not give us individual characters to latch onto through the course of the narrative: humanity, rather than a particular person, is the protagonist here. What’s more, she is her use of citations is more expansive than many might be used to. Among other things, this novel contains the longest Bible quote I have yet to encounter in fiction.

Still, the humaneness of this piece of writing wins through. Humankind is presented in all its ugliness, beauty, generosity and vulnerability. In spite of the damage we have done, Tadjo tells us, we are worth saving. ‘The life of humans is a story we haven’t yet finished telling.’ Perhaps, if we follow this novel’s prescriptions, we may yet have some wonderful chapters to enjoy.

In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes) by Véronique Tadjo, translated from the French by the author with John Cullen (Other Press/Hope Road Publishing, 2021)

Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein on flickr.com

Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on flickr.com

Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).

Book of the month: Deepak Unnikrishnan

A few years ago, when I was in UAE for a conference, I took a taxi to check out one of the city’s bookshops. The driver on my return journey was an Indian national who had been in Dubai for more than three decades, having started out on the city’s building sites. As we swept through the sun-bleached streets, past numerous skyscrapers under construction, he painted a picture that jarred sharply with the luxurious surroundings of the hotel to which I was returning.

‘No money, no honey,’ he told me, before explaining the way the average construction worker sweltering on one of the building sites we passed would survive. After rent had eaten up the majority of their income, the worker would have enough to afford to cook some rice and gravy for an evening meal, which they would eke out over several days, taking portions to the building site for lunch. During a 12- or 13-hour shift in temperatures that reach as high as 50 degrees C in the summer, the worker would probably only have one drink, the cost ruling out any more. Any excess money would be sent to family overseas. ‘Life is nothing,’ the driver said. ‘What kind of life can you have like that?’ 

This is one of the questions at the heart of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Stemming from the UAE-born and raised writer’s awareness that the experience of temporary workers (who make up around 80 per cent of the UAE’s population) has rarely been depicted in fiction, the book explores what it means to live at the margins of a society you never have the right to call your home. The many characters who throng the work’s pages vary enormously, from young girls caught up in abuse scandals to would-be dictators, yet they all share the quality of being sidelined, overlooked and denied the space to express themselves and answer their needs.

Language and word play are central. Although writing in English, Unnikrishnan folds terms from tongues including Arabic and Malayalam, as well as a wide array of references (everything from Fawlty Towers to the Ramayana), into the text. In so doing, he creates a series of idiolects informed by the experiences of the characters they depict. Meanwhile, the pointed misspelling of terms such as ‘Amreekun’ and ‘moonseepalty’ in certain mouths, implies a reader fluent in Global English, making many of the speakers outsiders even in their own stories.

The book itself does not fit the form prescribed for it. Although it is set out as a novel and divided into ‘chabter’s, each section presents a new situation and register. Poemlike lists jostle with gritty accounts of police harassment; Kafkaesque depictions of cockroaches becoming increasingly human sit alongside sharp, satirical (and extremely brave) attacks on the regime. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the writing and yet certain episodes feel startlingly real. The bizarre and the bathetic rub shoulders with the poignant and powerful. There is beauty and humour too.

Inevitably, in such a varied work, some pieces come over more successfully than others. In the case of this book, the resonance and power of many of the ‘chabter’s will depend as much on the knowledge of the reader as on the quality of the writing. With so many references and linguistic games at work, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand everything on a first pass – like the characters on the page, we are excluded from some things too.

The writing is also, at times, disturbingly brutal and graphic. The force of the frustration of so many lives eroded by the perpetual absence of the people and places that define them bursts out in violence and cruelty. From the misogynistic, racist taxi driver whose monologue fills an entire section to the annual purge in the desert (carrying echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’), the text is awash with long-suppressed desires breaking loose with often devastating consequences. For some readers, this will be too much.

But the humanity that flows through the text is ultimately this book’s most powerful force. From the celebration of the ingenuity that allows those denied the space to build a meaningful existence nevertheless to find humour and connection to the possibility of recognition between those coming from entirely different worlds.

Angry and damning though it is, this book is ultimately hopeful. These stories are worth telling, it insists. They are worth recognising and learning from. They deserve to be part of our imaginary universe. They are far from nothing, after all.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, 2017)

Picture: ‘Dubai Marina Construction’ by Anton Bawab on flickr.com

Book of the month: Aleko Konstantinov

One of the extraordinary things about reading books from other cultures is encountering beloved literary figures that have been points of reference for whole nations or language groups but remain unknown to most English speakers. This first happened to me back during my original 2012 quest when I read an unpublished translation of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi and was blown away by its portrayal of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, a towering character with every bit as much tragic power as King Lear or Okonkwo.

Learning about these well-known cultural figures feels a bit like seeing a streetlamp flickering on to reveal a massive monument where before you saw only darkness. It is a startling reminder of how much we miss when we stay within the boundaries of a single language’s literary output.

I had a similar experience reading my latest book of the month, Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin. The title came onto my radar when translator Christina E. Kramer, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, emailed me about it, mentioning that this was the first English-language version of this nineteenth-century classic, which has long been translated into most other European languages. Intrigued, I plunged in and made the acquaintance of the extraordinary title character some 125 years after he first appeared between the pages of a book.

The work is styled as a novel, but it is really a collection of satirical short stories all featuring the maddening, endearing and sometimes callous rascal Bai Ganyo. Like many nineteenth-century anglophone books, these stories were originally serialised in magazines and newspapers. Indeed, this edition contains several more pieces than appeared in the original collection, published in 1895. As such, an overarching narrative progression is largely absent, although there is a shift in tone, which the translators have recognised by dividing the book into two parts. The first contains a series of light-hearted accounts of Bai Ganyo’s bungling attempts to hawk rose oil in various European cities, narrated by a group of friends vying to amuse one another; the second, much darker section records his cynical attempts to capitalise on corruption when he returns home.

This is an interesting book to read at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world because of the way it problematises the concept. While the Bai Ganyo of the first part of the book is staunchly and almost blindly patriotic, the behaviour he and many of the Bulgarians he meets on his travels demonstrate is far from admirable. Indeed, Konstantinov presents many often witty but nonetheless harsh criticisms of national characteristics from jibes at cleanliness and table manners (‘when a Bulgarian slurps, it’s no joke. Three hundred dogs at each other’s throats can’t drown him out’) to portrayals of widespread venality and systemic corruption. Small wonder that while Bai Ganyo and his creator are so celebrated that in 2003 they were depicted on Bulgaria’s 100-lev note, ‘the idea that Bai Ganyo could be construed as representative of a national type is a source of embarrassment,’ as the introduction explains.

It’s often said that humour is hard to translate, yet in this book it comes through loud and clear. As many of the jokes in the first section arise from farcical happenings and physical comedy, there is a universality and immediacy to them that transcends language. Indeed, there is a crudeness to several of the anecdotes (which feature, among other things, a train decked out with soiled nappies instead of flags and an extended search for the toilet) that makes this book seem to come from quite another era than the buttoned-up English-language novels of the late-Victorian period. The most successful passages, however, concern misunderstandings that arise from Bai Ganyo’s naive optimism – as when he pitches up at the house of a world expert on Bulgaria in Prague and presumes he will be welcomed as an honoured guest simply because he hails from the nation.

Many of the later, darker sections will hit home for English speakers too. In an age of fake news and claims of election rigging, it is chilling to read of Bai Ganyo’s nakedly cynical attempts to intimidate voters and found a newspaper for financial gain.

For all its recognisable elements, however, this is not an easy read. The second part becomes relentlessly bleak and cynical at times. There is also the challenge of numerous references to nineteenth-century Bulgarian political and cultural figures whose names will mean nothing to most English speakers. Friedman et al have done their best to elucidate these with footnotes (an understandable choice for a book translated by academics and published by a university press), but these may have an alienating effect for general readers not used to being dragged out of a story to be given context. Even with this background information, the significance of some of the most involved passages may not land for those without detailed knowledge of the Bulgaria of the time.

All the same, readers willing to make the effort (and accept the possibility that some of its elements may not reveal themselves easily, if at all) will find that this book introduces a memorable and striking literary figure whose influence continues to exert itself more than a century after he burst onto the world stage. To make Bai Ganyo’s acquaintance is to come to understand something about the humour and self-image not only of his home country but of humanity as a whole. It’s not an entirely comfortable experience, but memorable encounters rarely are.

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder and Catherine Rudin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)