Benin: knowing your place

While it’s hard to find books from some nations, other countries are simply hard to find full stop – at least on the internet. Search for Nigerien literature (ie literature from Niger) and often as not Google will ask you if you meant ‘Nigerian literature’. And when it comes to tracking down information about the West African nation of Benin, you might well find yourself reading about events in Benin City, Nigeria by mistake.

In fact, I very nearly ended up reading a whole book from Benin City in error. The memoir, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, was listed on a bookseller’s website as being from Benin. Not having been able to find much other Beninois literature in English, I ordered it a few months ago and added it to the pile of books waiting in the corner of my living room.

It was only last week, when I picked the volume up with the intention of reading it and turned to the back to look at the blurb, that the penny dropped. Instead of perusing the biography of a senior Beninois politician, I was puzzled to find myself confronted with an account of Erediauwa’s education in Benin City and his experiences during the Nigerian Civil War. It took quite a bit of head-scratching to work out what had gone wrong.

This left me in a quandary. I could count the number of weeks left until the end of the year on my fingers and, given how little my preliminary searches had turned up, I was not at all confident that I would be able to find any kind of story from Benin that I could read in English before 2013.

A few hours of frantic googling ensued, during which I entertained all sorts of unlikely possibilities. I was on the point of investigating the cost of flights to Porto-Novo, when I stoogled across Harlem-based writer Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr. Born in Cotonou, Benin, Ismaili came to NYC as a teenager in the late 1950s with the hope of becoming Africa’s first opera singer, according to her profile on the Woyingi Blog. Instead, however, she took up psychology and began to write and has published several collections of poetry.

A number of articles I saw about Ismaili mentioned that she also writes short stories, although I couldn’t find any of her prose collections available to buy. So, with nothing to lose, I decided to contact her to see if she could help me out. Ismaili replied with the news that a collection of her short stories was in the process of being prepared for publication. The book was not ready yet, but she kindly agreed to send me the manuscript so that I could read it. Delighted and more than a little relieved, I downloaded the file onto my Kindle and got stuck in.

Set mostly in West Africa, Stories We Tell Each Other brings together a series of pieces about people coming up against injustice, discrimination and the limits that society puts on them because of their gender, race or age. There is the young girl set on going to university in the face of her male relatives’ scorn for the idea of educating women, the teenager who lives in fear of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and the boy who travels to join the People’s Liberation Army in South Africa.

Ismaili’s eye for detail makes these struggles real. The sadness and anger of ‘Into This House We Come’, for example – in which a woman attends the funeral of a friend infected with AIDS because of her husband’s promiscuity – live in the narrator’s memories of the dead woman’s laughter and her love of dancing. Similarly, the writer lays bare the pretensions of Khadiatou’s relatives in ‘Ici On Parle Francais’ with the simple revelation that her aunt changed her name from Salimatou to Sally ‘after having gone to London once’.

For all the problems facing the characters, the narratives convey a great deal of pride in West African culture. From depictions of personal rituals such as Khadiatou’s grandmother setting an extra place at the table for their stolen ancestress, through to explanations of the significance of particular insults and the traditions that mean an uncle can also be called a brother, Ismaili takes the role of a guide, interpreting unfamiliar concepts for readers so they too may inhabit the world of the book. Indeed, her evocation of domestic life in Benin is often so warm and inviting that it almost makes you homesick for a place you may never have been.

With this pride and love of place comes of strong sense of the importance of championing the independence and rights of Africans. This gives rise to some powerful, angry writing, as in ‘Coloured Beads and Glass Trees’, in which an exiled politician returns home in an attempt to avert a crisis and, among other things, discovers the grubby conditions attached to Western aid in the region. However, it can at times hi-jack the stories, particularly in the latter third of the book, causing the plots to buck and jerk under its weight. For example, ‘Tandi’, in which a lonely secretary gets swept up in the struggle against apartheid in Johannesburg, creaks a little in the effort to contain all that Ismaili wants to say. In addition, devices such as the radio reports that break into the text, begin to lose their effectiveness with repeated use.

Overall, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Ismaili is at her best when she is writing about the small details that bring meaning to people’s daily lives. In this, she has that rare gift of being able to take readers by the hand and introduce them to lives and concerns very different from their own. An extremely lucky find.

Stories We Tell Each Other by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr (publication pending)

You have just three days left to vote for my penultimate book of the year. Go on, tell me what to read!

Seychelles: home from home

There wasn’t much out there for the Seychelles. The caretaker of the block of flats I live in had very kindly got on the case and found an interview with school counsellor and poet Stephanie Joubert, in which she describes Seychellois poetry as ‘still taking baby steps’, but in terms of prose stories I was at a loss for a long time.

Tom Slone at Masalai Press had mentioned a writer called Glynn Burridge in one of his emails. However, as he said that Burridge was English, I had discounted his work. It wasn’t until, in the absence of any other leads, I decided to contact Burridge that I realised his work might fit the bill.

As well as being a UK national, Burridge, who grew up in pre-revolutionary Iran, has Seychellois citizenship and has lived in the archipelago for more than 30 years, having spent two decades overseeing the creation of an estate for the exiled Iranian royal family on the barely inhabited D’Arros Island. His collection of short stories, Voices, draws on tales he heard and experienced during this time in the country that has become his home. If I was reading Guillermo Yuscarán for Honduras, then surely Burridge should count for the Seychelles.

Few short story collections can be more eclectic than this one. Comprising historical essays on the region, eerie tales of apparitions and ghostly legends, personal descriptions of the challenges of setting up home on an untouched island, stirring accounts of battles between man and nature on the high seas, and a novella based on an act of piracy in the time of Queen Victoria, Voices presents a nation of many characters to the reader.

At the heart of the book, is a strong sense of the Seychelles being a country of immigrants. Burridge sets this up from the first page, with his ‘Historical Sketch of the Amirantes Islands’ (the group of islands within which D’Arros sits) outlining the many visitors that have come to the islands from Asia, Europe and elsewhere over the centuries. In this country that has always been ‘welcoming to exiles’, the act of arriving and putting down roots seems, according to the author at least, to be almost part of the national culture.

Burridge combines this sense of the diversity of the influences on Seychellois society with a passionate and in-depth knowledge of island life. From the specifics of handling different sailing crafts to the crash course he had to take to enable him to become D’Arros’s only doctor and dentist, a sense of the writer working his way into the fabric of the nation through painstaking, practical experience comes through strongly. In addition, we get a powerful impression of Burridge’s love for the place, both in his intimate knowledge of it and in the descriptions of the natural world that break into the text like the sun through clouds, flooding the narrative with beauty.

Burridge’s writing is at its best when it comes to describing tense and difficult situations, usually involving the ocean. The story ‘Leviathan’, in which a group of amateur fishermen face being towed down to their deaths by a monstrously large shark, for example, is gripping, as are ‘Desnoeufs’ and ‘The Expedition’, which deal with similar scenarios. Underlying these stories and many others in the book is a sense of the fragility and perilousness of life in this isolated place, surrounded by the great, mysterious ocean. As Anna asks in ‘Leviathan’: ‘Do we possess an inventory of what’s out here in these empty places?’

There is also some lovely humour in the book. I particularly enjoyed Burridge’s account of his attempt to call his father by radio-telephone only to receive an earful of abuse – ‘all he heard, as he told me later, through a blizzard of electronic noise, was a sound he described as the universe farting, accompanied by a demonic, ear-shattering whistle, at once painful to the ear and strangely mocking in its tone’. ‘Gris-Gris’, in which a naive English hotel manager finds himself baffled by the superstitions of his staff, is great too.

Inevitably for so diverse a collection, the writing style is somewhat inconsistent. While mostly enjoyable, it occasionally verges on the florid, while the historical pieces can be a little dry and dutiful in tone. There are also some alarming jumps in perspective between the characters that leave the reader scrabbling to catch up. In addition, the mix of genres and subject matter, though often refreshing, can be baffling at times. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of the novella Sea Dogs, which sprawled oddly amid these otherwise short, pithy pieces.

As a whole, though, the collection makes for a good read. The insight into nation-building on a microcosmic scale on D’Arros Island is fascinating and there are moments where readers will find themselves laughing out loud, as well as gripping the book for fear of what might happen beyond the next page turn. If this is a preliminary sounding of the depth and breadth of stories the Seychelles has to offer, it’s high time we had some more.

Voices: Seychelles short stories by Glynn Burridge (Nighthue Publications, 2000)

Honduras: the look of love

This was a recommendation from Kathy. In response to my half-way appeal for countries I had yet to find books from, she contacted her friend Erik, who had spent some time living in Honduras.

The familiar response came back that there wasn’t much literature in translation from the country. Erik’s first choice would have been Ramón Amaya Amador’s Prisión verde but as far as he knew – and as far as I’ve been able to find out – this is not available in English. In the absence of anything by Spanish-language authors that I could read in translation, Erik suggested artist and writer Guillermo Yuscarán, whom he described as a ‘quasi Honduran author’.

The quasi refers to the fact that Yuscarán was actually born in the US with the name William Lewis. It wasn’t until 1972 that he came to Honduras, fell in love with the place and eventually made it his home, even going so far as to take a Honduran name. Given my general rule of thumb that a writer has to have spent enough time in a country for it to be part of their life story in order for their work to be eligible to represent that nation on the list, Yuscarán definitely fitted the bill.

Written during his first visit to Honduras and illustrated by the author, Points of Light paints a disturbing and enchanting picture of the country that stole Yuscarán’s heart. By turns brutal and whimsical, the stories shimmer with the hopes and dreams of a multitude of characters engaged in the struggle to survive. There is the chronically ill boy Raimundo who sings in the town and on the buses to feed himself and his siblings, the prostitute Lia who dies in childbirth on the beach, and the poor child Vicente who wants to reach the moon down from the sky. Through them all, moves the blind man Toribio, a magnetic figure who draws the stories together and provides a series of almost other-worldly insights.

Yuscarán’s direct and often apparently simple style is well-suited to telling the stories of characters who are thwarted by life. His portrait of Miguel, for example, a disabled man who was abandoned in Tela at the age of two – ‘a piece of bait for life to strike at’ – and now lives in a shack on the beach, forever cut off from the girls he would love to get to know, is devastating in ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Similarly, the discussions between Toribio and a terminally ill child in ‘Emilio Aguilar’ capture of world of feeling in a very few words.

But that’s not all. A strong artistic sense runs through the book, bringing out the richness, beauty and possibility of even the bleakest existences. We see it in the vivid descriptions of the colours of the natural world – the sunrise’s ‘spidery pattern of oranges and yellows for Lia’s song and Pablito’s dreams to ride on’, for example – and in the awakening sensibility of the many artists who people the narratives. While gringo Memo (a self-portrait, perhaps?) ‘had always wanted only to see what was real, no matter how painful or overwhelming’, Vicente experiences the marketplace as being ‘alive with color […] each person [..] a spark of light leaping in and out of a great painting’. And when the painter Soledad, who sees ‘the truth of colour in all things’, completes his magnum opus of a great bird on a wall looking out to sea, his creation takes on an extraordinary life of its own:

‘That night, The Great Bird moved its head, then blinked one eye; the massive wings fluttered. Far out at sea, a fog bank moved rapidly toward shore, sliding across the water to the sheer cliff walls. As the fog passed, dissipating into mist, Soledad saw the moon over Tela, shining downward like some enormous beacon. His eyes widened as the sphere suddenly became transparent, before filling with liquid colours, shades he saw as his own cosmic fluids – his own blood – in transformation: rich incandescent blues and greens; a kaleidoscope of oranges and yellows becoming livid pink, then violet, then crackling into sprays of porous magenta. Blinded by the brilliance, Soledad closed his eyes.’

Though there are many great moments, some of the stories lack momentum. ‘Dona Lina Catero’, for example, in which an old woman goes about her business, waxing lyrical to the village youngsters, is more of a portrait. Similarly, ‘Son of Esquipulas’, the final story in the collection, feels more like a mosaic of incidents rather than a single coherent piece.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the freshness of the vision in the writing. Forty years on, with his place in Honduras’s cultural hall of fame assured, Yuscarán’s first book retains its power to surprise, sadden and transcend. It is in many ways a love letter to the country he would adopt. On the strength of it, it’s hard to see how Honduras could not embrace him.

Points of Light by Guillermo Yuscarán (Nuevo Sol Publicaciones, post 1989)

United Arab Emirates: on the money

One thing this quest has taught me is that there’s no harm in trying. You can never predict whether someone will help you from reading their biography or studying their tweets. The worst that can happen when you fire off an email asking for suggestions of books from far-flung corners of the planet is that you receive a grumpy message in reply (rare) or you hear nothing back (more common and completely understandable). But every so often, if you type really nicely and wish double hard, you strike gold.

With this in mind, I sent an email to University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature and leading translator Roger Allen back in June this year, asking for advice on some of the Middle Eastern countries I had yet to source books for. As I discovered when I came across an interview with him on the blog Fascinated by the Arab World,  Allen was uniquely placed to help me. Not only does he hold the US’s oldest professorial post for Arabic as a separate language, but he has also translated books by some of Arabic literature’s finest writers, among them Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, whom he met many times.

In spite of his busy schedule, Allen replied with several thoughts. All in all, he confirmed, there was very little available in translation from the Gulf states. However, when it came to the UAE, there was one writer he could recommend with some short story collections in translation: his name was Mohammad Al Murr. I lost no time in looking Al Murr up and within minutes his intriguingly titled The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf was winging its way to me.

Al Murr’s collection spans a cross-section of UAE society. From the businessman flying first-class to the thief rustling camels to please his prostitute girlfriend, Al Murr’s characters are eclectic and often surprising. There is the driving instructor who charms her way into a family circle, the trumpet player with impractical plans for starting a string of businesses, and the middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with owning a talking parrot.

Quirky and intriguing, the stories often deal with the minutiae of existence, showing how a look, a word or even an apparent wink – as in the case of the title work – can change the course of a life. Often these changes centre on small tragedies or victories, as in ‘The Night’s Catch’, in which three boys steal and sell some pigeons from a violent collector in order to pay for a trip to the cinema, but they frequently point to more fundamental shifts. The outstanding ‘Road Accidents’, for example, in which a husband and wife undertake a treacherous drive through fog, testing and exposing the cracks in their relationship along the way, is a masterclass in using small details as chess pieces to play out psychological battles.

In this world where much is left unsaid and people are often at cross purposes to one another – conducting affairs, gossiping about irrelevancies around a sick-bed and, in the case of the children in the collection, bemused by the oddness of the things others take for granted – it is often left to the non-human participants in the stories to act out hidden tensions and desires. While the naughty pet ape Umm Kamil leads her owners a merry dance in ‘Just Standing There, Smiling’, crashing a wedding and at one point even disrupting worship in a mosque, Adoul the monkey becomes the agent of his mistress’s cruel revenge on a servant in ‘The Awesome Lady’.

One or two of the more enigmatic stories, such as ‘The Secret’, in which a boy becomes a mute because of something he witnesses, have an unfinished quality. In addition, the play with dialogue and one-sided conversations, which works brilliantly in stories such as ‘Words, Words, Words’, overwhelms the drive of a few pieces so that occasionally it seems as though Al Murr is more interested in exploring the technical possibilities than developing the action.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating collection. Packed with rich perceptions, it is an intense evocation of people’s lives and concerns. It is also testament to Al Murr’s skill that our faith in the situations he creates does not falter, no matter how bizarre they may be. It will be a long time before I forget the image of Umm Kamil appropriating the bride’s veil during a wedding feast.

The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammad Al Murr, translated from the Arabic by Jack Briggs (Motivate Publishing, 1998)

Kiribati: crossing boundaries

I emailed a lot of people during the search for this book. Some of the messages bounced. Others disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. But lots of people did get back to me, usually to tell me one or both of two things: that there was no Kiribatian prose that they could think of and/or that there was someone I should contact at the university/library/community project across the way who might know more.

This impromptu game of e-tag led me through Guam, New Zealand, Kiribati itself, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the States, until at last I emailed Sudesh Mishra, an associate professor in the school of creative and communication arts at Deakin University in Australia. He suggested that I look up Teweiariki Teaero and gave me his email address at the University of the South Pacific. Perhaps the poet would have a prose manuscript I could read.

I dropped Teaero a line. He replied the very next day to say that while no novel, short story collection or memoir by a writer from Kiribati existed, his anthologies On Eitei’s Wings and Waa in Storms contained prose pieces as well as poems. Would I be interested in reading one of those?

Curious to see how this mixing of genres worked, I asked which collection contained the greatest amount of short stories. A few weeks later a copy of Waa in Storms arrived.

Bringing together Teaero’s poetry, prose, drawings and paintings, the anthology comprises work from a particularly dark period in the author’s life, during which his parents fell seriously ill, his youngest daughter was hit by a car, and his home community on the atoll of Tarawa was shaken by a series of vicious child rapes. Melding depictions of particular moments and more general reflections on extreme emotions with anecdotes, satirical sketches and occasional rants about island life, the pieces present a rich and layered picture of Teaero’s year.

The use of language in the book is fascinating. While some pieces, including all the prose work, are written entirely in English, others, such as ‘Te Faika’, mix together verses in the Kiribatese language and verses in English. Yet others are written exclusively in Kiribatese. Teaero explains in his introduction that the reasons for this are tied to his desire ‘to express an idea as vividly as possible… [whether] this comes through the use of English, Kiribatese, visual image or any combination of the three’.

For the author, it seems, the three modes of expression have different strengths when it comes to certain ideas and emotions. Although it’s impossible for an English-language reader like me to tell what the subject matter of most of the Kiribatese work is, a note at the end of ‘E Kaaki Baina Te Ang’ (‘Teaia, Tarawa. 18th August 2000. The day my father passed away’) suggests that some of it at least contains extremely personal reflections on the writer’s emotional and family life, while many of the English pieces are outward-looking, focusing on politics, ecology and the wider community.

The inclusion of background details at the end of most of the pieces adds a fascinating layer of meaning to the collection. While some reveal the inspiration for the work, others such as the note, ‘Composed while sitting on the sand dunes in Sigatoka town. 28th January 2001,’ at the end of ‘Sad Parade’ introduce a powerful sense of immediacy to the act of writing, as though we are reading the story of the composition as much as the pieces themselves. And then there are the quirky observations that raise a smile and introduce a huge amount of warmth into the collection, such as the postscript to ‘Size Unlimited’:

‘Suva. 5th December 2000. Composed in the Botanical Gardens of USP. The frogs were very happy, hopping about and croaking joyously every-merry-where! Perhaps they were having an early Christmas party.’

Teaero’s writing seems, for the most part, disarmingly simple. He uses this to great effect in satirical stories such as ‘Merrily Verily Messing with Missing Milkfish’, where the sing-song, childlike tone of the piece is a great tool for sending up corrupt government officials. It can also pay dividends in poems such as ‘Tab-ulous Reunion’ where the almost banal heaping of platitudes on a former teacher builds in a mysteriously moving way. At times, however, the work does feel a little bald, particularly at the end of some of the prose pieces, where Teaero steps out from behind the narrative to appeal for a range of reforms, from equipping the police with breathalyzers and planting more trees at the local hospital to greater transparency in politics, as though he does not trust the story to speak for itself.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the distinction between poetry and prose in the collection often seems rather meaningless. Several of the poems read as stories, while prose pieces such as ‘Island Time’ and ‘Crowded Buses’ read more as poems that happen to be written in full sentences that stretch across the page. In addition, much of the work incorporates visual aspects, with font sizes and weights and the shape of the poems on the page adding emphasis. Just as outside events and Teaero’s life experiences bleed into and mingle with the works, so the forms mix with and change each other.

The result is a distinctive and memorable collection. Organised into four ‘Waves’, which loosely chart Teaero’s progress through what he calls his ‘annus horribilis‘ in the introduction, the work pulls together to tell a story of suffering and change. It is in many ways every bit as much a narrative as the novels, short story collections and memoirs I’ve read so far this year – and a striking challenge to the system of categorization I’ve used to talk about literature for much of my life.

Waa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2004)

St Vincent & the Grenadines: journeys

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

Bolivia: fresh blood

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

Palestine: shifting boundaries

When I started this project, I wasn’t expecting to read a book from Palestine. The list of 196 sovereign states I was working from did not include the Middle Eastern nation, which has received only partial international recognition since the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

However, in June I decided to change from my original Western-influenced list to a list of countries that have received some degree of acknowledgement from the United Nations as a more global measure of statehood. In practice, this simply meant swapping Kosovo for Palestine – although it is not a UN member, Palestine is recognised as a non-member entity by the UN and has permanent observer status at all UN meetings.

To this end, I got in touch with Naela Khalil, a leading Palestinian journalist and winner of the prestigious Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press whom I was lucky enough to interview earlier this year. She very kindly contacted many writers on my behalf to find out who had work in translation. A lot of the people she wrote to did not have books available in English, but in July she emailed to tell me that she had had a reply from Mahmoud Shukair, whom she describes as ‘one of the best writers living in Jerusalem’, with information about his first major publication in English: a collection of short fiction entitled Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats.

Bustling with eccentrics, Shukair’s short stories – and the ‘Vignettes’, ‘And Vignettes’, ‘And More Vignettes’ that make up most of the second half of the book – reveal a world where joy and tragedy hinge on tiny details and casual remarks. There is the chancer who tries to exploit a distant family connection with the pop star Shakira to win special treatment at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, the football-fanatic taxi driver whose tall stories about his friendship with Ronaldo get him beaten up for harbouring spies, and the Israeli border guard of the title who makes a line of people wait for hours because he is paranoid they are laughing at his moustache.

Politics and partition are everywhere, even in the words and images people use in conversation, yet Shukair puts the individuality and humanity of his characters first. He does this by filling his narratives with quirks, tics and details that bring home the personality of those he describes. Often the effect of this is very funny and even surreal, but it can be devastating too, as in ‘The Room’, where the mention of a child’s toys makes the actions of the killer brutally real:

‘He could have been a well-mannered murderer so that we could have found some excuse for him. He could have been a murderer with a good argument, so that we could have had a little admiration for him. But he was pathetic and ugly. Testimony to this was the child’s bedroom, which was ripped apart, his bed, which was burnt, the rabbit, the elephant, the giraffe, the duck and spatters everywhere of his blood. They posed a risk to that ugly murderer who did not have a good argument so that we could have had a little admiration for him.’

There is so much to say about the content of the stories and the window they provide on a world where everything, from getting an education to getting to work, is fraught with difficulty and danger that it is easy to forget the quality of the writing itself. Ranging from bald and stark statements, as in the extract above, to the absurdist and occasionally cryptic tropes of some of the vignettes, many of which read more as extended metaphors than as literal descriptions, Shukair’s prose is urgent and engrossing. He writes interestingly about the influence of Hemingway on his work in the final section, ‘Talking About Writing’, and it is possible to recognise something of that stripped-back style in this translation, although Shukair has many other techniques up his sleeve, not least a masterful sense of the role of humour in heightening poignancy.

He certainly had me enthralled. I hope it isn’t long before we see more of works coming out in English – I want to read on.

Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats by Mahmoud Shukair, translated from the Arabic by Issa J Boullata, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Elizabeth Winslow and Christina Phillips (Banipal Books, 2007)

Nauru: small triumphs

Every so often on a literary adventure like this, you come across someone who, as if with the wave of a magic wand, is able to solve several of your dilemmas at a single stroke. Thomas Slone is one such written-word wizard. As owner of US-based Masalai Press, a company specialising in work from Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southeast Asia, he knows a thing or two about books from some of the most remote and least published nations in the world – and has a store of rare and out-of-print texts that simply aren’t available through many other sources.

I was put on Slone’s trail by the team at the University of Papua New Guinea Press, which in turn was recommended to me by Kate, who kindly responded to my halfway appeal for help with countries I have yet to find books for. After months of hassling people about Pacific Island literature, it seemed almost too good to be true when Slone not only came back with a list of recommendations for titles from several nations in the region, but also looked out some works that I could buy right there and then, among then Stories from Nauru.

Perhaps fittingly for a book from the world’s smallest island country, Stories from Nauru is a tiny work. Weighing in at just 20 pages, it looks at first glance as though it might sit more comfortably in pamphlet territory rather than trying to fight its corner among volumes ten times its size. The books dated cover design and yellowed pages also make it seem as though it hails from another era altogether, rather than from 1996, the year my edition came out.

The book’s slight appearance, however, belies the scale of its ambitions. Published off the back of a University of the South Pacific workshop on Nauru in 1990, ‘organised so that a conscious effort would be made to encourage Nauruans to write and to record their folklore in the attempt to build up a Nauruan literature’, as the Foreword explains, the collection has grand aims.

However, unlike other short story anthologies I’ve seen from the region, this book is not merely an attempt to document the island’s traditional tales. Instead, it is a collection of fresh creative writing, informed by but not confined to folklore. While some stories, such as Ben Bam Solomon’s ‘The Origins of Nauru’, which features three giants, clearly draw on local mythology, others like Jerielyn Jeremiah’s ‘The New School’, a tale of one girl’s experience of prejudice at  boarding school, deal with the practicalities of modern-day life.

Perhaps most startling of all is ‘A Plea for Help’ by Elmina Quadina, which is about a 30-year-old woman who is losing her hearing. It is impossible to know whether Quadina and her narrator are one and the same, but the piece’s plain language and simple power act like a hand reaching out from the text to draw you into the bleak existence facing disabled people in this remote corner of the world in a way that feels almost too personal to be anything other than real:

‘People, including my colleagues, think I’m stupid. They think I’m just a silly, stupid creature because I cannot hear properly. I don’t blame them for thinking of me in this way because I know it’s hard to talk to someone who is deaf. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a naughty little child who does not wish to listen. But it’s not like this with me because I have my brain and I wish to listen, hear and learn, But how? There is no-hearing [sic] aid or any other aid to help me.’

What the collection does have in common with other texts I’ve seen from the region is a recurring concern about the erosion of traditional culture and the encroachment of the Western world. Indeed, there is a slightly panicky air about some of the pieces, such as Roy Degoregore’s ‘Nauru: The Way it Used to Be’, which feels like a kind of literary Kim’s Game in which he tries to get down everything he remembers about the old customs before time runs out. Other stories, like Lucia Bill’s striking ‘Egade’ have a more wistful, haunting air.

As you would expect from stories produced in workshop conditions, a few of the pieces lack polish and there is a fragmentary, unfinished quality to some of the writing. However, the overall effect of this varied and surprising collection is impressive. The storytelling is, on the whole, fresh and immediate – far from the dry and earnest exercise in cultural preservation the Foreword might lead you to expect. I’d be very interested to know whether the book spawned further such workshops as Nauru clearly boasts some good writers among its 9,378 residents.

Stories from Nauru by Ben Bam Solomon et al (The University of the South Pacific Nauru Centre & Institute of Pacific Studies, 1996)

Luxembourg: a mission and a half

I had an email from Andrew in Ireland. Back in 2004, when the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 states, he undertook a project to read a book from each member country. He got round them all, with one exception: when it came to Luxembourg there was nothing he could get hold of to read in English.

It’s not surprising that Andrew found getting literature from the world’s only sovereign grand duchy difficult: with three official languages (French, German and Luxembourgish), there’s enough to do translating documents so that all of the country’s 500,000 or so citizens can read them without looking further afield.

Nevertheless, Andrew did give me something to go on. In the course of his research, he’d heard about a Luxembourgish writer called Claudine Muno who had published a novel in English in 1996, at the age of just 16. By all accounts it was out of print.

I looked Muno up. It turns out she’s continued to be something of a trailblazer and is now frontwoman of the Luxembourgish folk-pop band Claudine Muno and the Luna Boots. Crossing my fingers, I left a message on the group’s Facebook page, asking if Muno could tell me how I could get hold of her book.

Muno replied. She was sorry to say that her novel was completely unavailable – she and her editor only had one copy each left. However, she did have a recent audiobook with young writers reading extracts from their work, some of them in English – would I be interested in that?

And so it was that during a drive down to Cornwall, my long-suffering boyfriend and I listened our way through Write Out Loud, a mixture of Luxembourgish, French, German and English pieces read in the same earnest tones that I remembered members of the Creative Writing Society (many of them dressed in black and sporting berets) adopting at open-mic nights at university.

It would have been tempting to claim this as my Luxembourgish book and leave the quest there. However, given that the prose extracts in English probably only amounted to a total of five minutes’ listening time, this would have felt a bit like cheating. So, taking a deep breath, I sent an email to 19-year-old Joshi Gottlieb, the mastermind of the project and the writer on the CD whose quirky, oddball style I’d most enjoyed.

Gottlieb came back with the manuscript of a book by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, who did the cover illustration for Write Out Loud. Written throughout in three languages (English, French and German), the book looked set to be published by Éditions Phi  in February 2013. I sighed with relief. I may even have whooped in triumph: at last, I had my Luxembourgish book.

Minute Stories is a collection of micro-tales – many of them no more than a sentence long – each of which has been paired with one of Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings. As Jean-Marie Schaeffer explains in her introduction, ‘here, one single person holds both the pen and the brush’, creating ‘fundamental indecision in the relation between pictorial and narrative identities’.

In some cases, the link between the two works is clear. There is the visual joke of a picture of a woman with her arm thrown back undercut by a comment about shaving underarm hair and – my personal favourite – a sentence about someone who will not stop talking accompanied by a nightmarish painting of a clownish face, which evokes that feeling of being cornered by someone you’d really rather not speak to perfectly.

Some of the other associations are less obvious. While it is clearly Gottlieb-Cahen’s intention to challenge readers to find their own meaning in the interplay of the words and images, the obscurity of some of the connections can be frustrating. The picture of a naked buxom woman above a sentence about shoelaces, for example, left me scratching my head.

This sense of uncertainty permeates the stories too, many of which deal with loneliness, loss, leaving and ‘the art of not understanding each other’. We are repeatedly invited to question the identity of the narrators – are they Gottlieb-Cahen or someone else altogether?  In addition, the informality of their grammar and punctuation, which gives them the feel of text messages or notes scribbled in someone’s diary, and the occasional bracketed references to the places where the events happened make them seem like moments snatched from everyday life.

There is also the question of the relation of the text’s three languages to each other. Although the English version of the text is printed first on each page, one or too minor syntactical oddities suggest that it is not Gottlieb-Cahen’s first language. This made me wonder how the stories were written. Did Gottlieb-Cahen work in one language and translate into the other two? Or did he generate each version independently?

The web of questions grows as the book progresses, wrapping the reader in a cat’s-cradle of ideas. Gottlieb-Cahen keeps this light and playful with regular bursts of bathos and wit, which challenge the hushed reverence that often seems to be the expected response to art books. The result is a fascinating and exuberant exploration of pictures and words and our relationship to them. Well worth the effort it took to find it.

Minute Stories by Robi Gottlieb-Cahen (slated for publication by Éditions Phi in 2013)