Postcard from my bookshelf #11

A final spin of the random-number generator brought me to this comment from Meghan:

I love this project! I have always said that if I could, I would love to spend quality time in every culture in the world. This is a great way to see into those different cultures and know that we are all the same, no matter where we ended up being born. I have eclectic taste: poetry, sci-fi, apocalyptic..I especially love reading books that show the day to day lives of other cultures so you feel yourself immersed in that culture. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

Two things stood out for me from this: Meghan’s enjoyment of sci-fi and apocalyptic literature, and her desire to feel immersed in the day-to-day lives of other cultures.

This second point is a common theme among literary explorers. Indeed, when people hear about my project to read a book from every country in 2012, they often assume that I read a book set in every country.

I can see why. For many bibliophiles, part of the appeal of reading internationally is the idea that it will enable them to travel in the mind, using books as a telescope to look at far-away places that they might never visit in person.

There’s nothing wrong with this as an ambition – and there are many wonderfully immersive books bristling with local detail that will give readers the impression of being transplanted into the everyday lives of people thousands of miles away.

However, when I set out on my quest five years ago, I knew this wasn’t my goal. Apart from anything else, I was sure that it would take many more than one book from each place to get an accurate, rounded picture of what life in each nation was like.

Instead, what interested me was mindsets, voices and perspectives. I wanted to explore how writers in different places looked at life, seeing what individual viewpoints I could access, rather than trying to look for general truths.

This meant that setting was not a primary concern. It seemed to me that a novel about another country or an imaginary place could tell me as much about the world-view of the author as a lavish evocation of the region in which they lived. So, although many of the stories I read took place in the nations I chose them to represent, some didn’t – my Eritrean read being an example. Meanwhile, like many of the best English-language novels, a number of them featured international journeys.

With this in mind, I decided to crash together Meghan’s two points and selected an-otherworldly book that nevertheless reveals telling things about the culture in which it was written. My choice is the daring 1977 dystopian novel Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Norwegian writer Gerd Brantenberg, translated by Louis Mackay.

It’s a novel I’ve discovered since I finished my original quest and have returned to several times. Indeed, I wrote an entry about it for the beautifully illustrated Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, which Hachette published last year. (The picture of the rather controversial Norwegian cover featured at the top comes from this.)

Set in a world where patriarchy is turned on its head so that society is ruled by wim, while menwim can only aspire to be ‘housebounds’ who must stay at home, look pretty and bring up the children, the novel explores gender dynamics through the lens of second-wave Scandinavian feminism. As British writer Naomi Alderman’s The Power would do decades later, it uses this startling reversal of the status quo to reveal the injustices and cruelties that lurk beneath the surface of many of our assumptions about how life works.

Like the best books, it is as at once specifically of its time and place, and universal – packed with insights that are relevant to people reading in a different language at forty years’ remove.

Meghan, I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The final recipient will be announced on December 15.


Lesotho: women’s rites

The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.

I was sure there had to be more some more recent Sesotho literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Mosotho author.

Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.

If I found a book by a Mosotho author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Basotho women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.

The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Sesotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.

Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.

The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although local traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.

This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:

‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” […]

‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘

Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e’, in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Basotho women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.

The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.

Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)

Morocco: feminine endings

Shafiqah1 put a comment on the blog earlier this week. ‘Please read Tahar Ben Jelloun, any of his works, if you are enjoying Francophone Literature, I promise you won’t regret it!’ she wrote.

It was as if she’d read my mind. In fact, I’d just finished Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child and was preparing to post on it when her comment came in.

Shafiqah1 wasn’t the only Ben Jelloun fan to have visited the blog. Back when I first asked the world’s book lovers to tell me what I should be reading late last year, litlove also put in a vote for the writer.

However, what finally made me pick The Sand Child from the cluster of fascinating-sounding Moroccan titles on the list was a recommendation of a very different kind, from a person who doesn’t technically exist.

The Sand Child is the novel Doria, the gutsy teenage heroine of my French choice Just Like Tomorrow, is reading when we first stumble into her tough life on the Paradise Estate in a part of Paris the guidebooks never mention. As I liked Doria, I thought I would probably get on well with a book she enjoys. I also loved the idea of books talking to and about one another, signposting me from one to the next like clues on a massive literary treasure hunt.

And if I needed anything else to persuade me, Doria’s pithy précis of the book was more than enough to make me want to read it:

‘It’s about a little girl who got brought up as a boy because she was the eighth daughter in the family and her father wanted a son. Plus, at the time when it was set, you didn’t have ultrasound or contraception. No kids on sale or return, you get me.’

As Doria suggests, gender issues are at the heart of the novel. Like several other stories I’ve read from relatively conservative Islamic countries, the book is startling in its explicitness and the fearless way it tackles taboos. Focusing on the lonely and troubled Ahmed, who was raised to despise femaleness as a ‘natural infirmity’ that threatens the family’s future because women are forbidden by law to inherit more than a third of their father’s wealth, the narrative presents a complex picture of gender dysphoria that reveals the narrowness of society’s definitions. As Ahmed him/herself explains, ‘the huge ordeal through which I am passing has meaning only outside those petty, psychological schemata that claim to know and explain why a woman is a woman and a man a man’.

Even more engrossing, however, is the picking apart of storytelling that Ben Jelloun weaves through the text. Frequently interrupted by a tour guide-cum-storyteller and various listeners, characters and even literary figures from other tales, the narrative becomes a battleground of interpretations, speculation and suspicion. Just as Ahmed is both male and female, victim and aggressor, transgressor and conformist, so the story veers between truth and falsehood as a range of would-be narrators squabble over its meaning, providing alternative endings and even, at one stage, burning the original text. It is as though plurality and ambiguity are the only things of which we readers can be sure, a sentiment explored by the Blind Troubadour, who weighs in towards the end:

‘Besides, a book – at least that’s how I see it – is a labyrinth created on purpose to confuse men, with the intention of ruining them and bringing them back to the narrow limits of their ambitions.’

Such elusiveness might be maddening in the hands of another writer, but in Ben Jelloun’s it is intriguing, amusing and even beautiful. In fact certain images, such as the description of adopting another identity being like putting on ‘a wonderful magic jellaba, a cloak cut out of the sky and studded with stars’, reach out from the hubbub of the novel’s voices to stop you in your tracks, like rare treasures mixed in among the knick-knacks at a bustling bazaar.

The overall effect is rich, engrossing and challenging. Readers wanting a quiet meander along well-trodden paths are probably best advised to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being pushed, jostled, pulled in all directions, spun round and tumbled into the odd ditch, then this is the book for you.

The Sand Child (L’enfant du sable) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Quartet Books, 1988)

Cuba: stellar work

One of the strange things about translated books is that they reach us quite a while after they were written. Sometimes, as in the case of smash hits like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, this might be only a matter of a few months. More often than not it takes several years.

Then there are books like Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales, which was published in Spanish in 1940 and only made it into English 64 years later. These burst into an era very different from the moment in history in which they were created, a bit like light reaching us from extinct stars.

The book was a recommendation from David Iaconangelo, the founder of Zafra Lit, a bilingual blog dedicated to new Cuban short fiction. He described the stories as so well-written and original that they were ‘somewhere between a work of anthropology and fiction’, and said Cabrera’s work documenting the way various African and Cuban cultures fused in the tales she recorded had had a major influence on later writers such as Alejo Carpentier. I was also intrigued to see from Fernando Ortiz’s introduction to the Spanish edition that this is apparently the first book ever published by a Havana-born woman. Clearly, I was going to have to take a look.

Iaconangelo was certainly right about the originality: I’ve never come across stories more extraordinary than these. Operating in a universe of turtle-men, tiger-men and elephant-men, where stags ride horses, fishermen negotiate with their prey and earthworms compete for the hands of beautiful heroines, these tales pull apart the threads of reality’s backdrop and invite the reader to step through to the weird, cruel and magical cosmos beyond.

Language itself buckles, blends and warps in its attempt to contain the vibrant currents that flow through these tales, with the cultural fusion reflected by the inclusion of utterances from the now extinct creolized dialect Bozal, as well as phrases from Lucumi, Congo and Abakua tongues. As one footnote explains, ‘the original meaning of many of the African words in this book has been lost’, giving a lot of them the mysterious quality of magical incantations, for which they were used in some Afro-Cuban circles.

In addition, the stories themselves test the limits of the language in which they are couched: in ‘Bregantino Bregantin’, for example – in which men are banished and women live along with a single male bull – communication changes so that ‘all masculine words not directly related to the bull were eliminated from the language’. The effect of reading this in the original, gendered Spanish must be particularly striking.

For all their strangeness, however, the stories nevertheless manage to comment on the world around them. Indeed, the distance that some of the more surreal episodes create probably grants the narratives more leverage to attack racism and the hypocrisy of institutions like the Church – ‘all of us are children of saints, and all of our meanness and the pleasure we take in sinning comes directly from them,’ begins one particularly mordant tale.

There are also moments of exceptional beauty, as in the opening paragraph of ‘The Mutes’:

‘On the first night, the moon looked like a thin strand of hair. On the next, like the edge of a transparent sickle. Next it looked like a slice of juicy honeydew melon, and then like a round millstone. Finally it dropped off into the night’s deep mouth, where the Eternally Hidden, the person whom no one has ever seen and who lives at the bottom of the bottomless, smashes up all the old moons with a stone to make stars while another moon is on its way.’

Brave, beautiful, weird and maddening, the stories that Lydia Cabrera gathered and filtered through her own writerly imagination are a lesson in how to break the rules and create something astonishing. As a collection, this book shouldn’t work: it’s inconsistent and erratic; characters stroll on half way through narratives and divert them another way; some stories peter out and the voice varies wildly between tales. But then, superficial logic would also tell us we shouldn’t be able to see light from stars that no longer exist.

Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

Afghanistan: blood and guts

It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini. Not that I’ve got anything against Khaled Hosseini, but as he has become the go-to Afghan writer in the UK I was keen to see what else a curious reader could turn up from this much reported and yet strangely mysterious land.

I contacted the Afghan Women’s Writing Project for ideas. They sent back some intriguing suggestions, several of which are on the list, however as most of the books they mentioned were either stories that had been told by women to non-Afghans and written down or accounts by Western journalists and soldiers of their experiences in the country, I didn’t feel they quite met my criteria.

I even had a brief exchange with a Canadian soldier-cum-food blogger who is serving out in Afghanistan at the moment. He told me the writer he’d read in preparation for his trip was… Khaled Hosseini.

In the end, a mixture of googling and reading reviews turned up Prix Goncourt-winning The Patience Stone by French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. Skipping the introduction (by Khaled Hosseini) I plunged right in.

Set ‘somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’, this slender novella portrays the struggles of a nameless woman as she tries to care for her comatose husband in a city torn apart by war. As militants roam the streets, bombs fall and the front line shifts to her neighbourhood cutting her and her children off from basic supplies, she battles to stick to the strict regime of prayer prescribed by the Mullah and to keep the wounded man clean and stable.

But as the days creep by measured out in the names of God she must recite 99 times for each of her 99 prayer beads every day and punctuated here and there by bursts of fear and sudden atrocities nearby, the woman is tested to her limits. With the power dynamics between her and the man who used to control her strangely reversed and the buildings around her crumbling, she begins to assert herself, spewing forth all the bitterness, frustrations and secrets that have walled her in for years.

The novel is stylistically striking. Told through a sort of floating consciousness that remains in the sick man’s room as the woman comes and goes and accords the same attention to the activities of the spider in the roof beams as to the human characters, the narrative has a weirdly detached air, which often makes the descriptions read like stage directions.

This creates a powerful contrast with the volleys of emotion that engulf the woman as she speaks in extraordinarily graphic terms of her physical, mental and sexual sufferings, caught up in tenderness and hate. It also makes for great suspense in the scenes where we wait in the room to discover what is happening outside, beyond our gaze, as in the passage where the woman goes to discover the grisly fate of her neighbour’s male relatives:

‘The women walk off across the rubble. They can no longer be heard.

Suddenly, a howl. From the woman. Horrified. Horrifying. Her footsteps stagger over the flagstones, stumble through the ruins, cross the garden and enter the house. She is still screaming. She vomits. Weeps. Runs around the house. Like a madwoman.’

At first the novel’s stylistic framework makes for moments of awkward exposition. With no omniscient narrator and no first-person thought processes through which to explain the backstory, Rahimi has to rely on the woman rehearsing the events that have led up to the start of the novel out loud to the unconscious man. This jars in the initial pages, but soon becomes natural and, as the woman’s thoughts and emotions become more volatile, even develops into the novel’s central trope.

Rahimi’s transformation of his narrative’s weakness into its strength, mirroring his central character’s journey, is impressive. I was gripped and moved by his ability to make something so telling and immediate out of stylistic constraints that might have been alienating and pedantic in another writer’s hands. It made me very glad I wandered off the beaten track.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage Digital, 2010)