Postcard from my bookshelf #10

Without the millions of people putting stories into words around the planet, my quest to read a book from every country in the world would never have got off the ground. In consequence, this month, I’m sending a book to a writer.

I was encouraged to find a number of people with literary ambitions among the entrants to this giveaway. As I wrote when I got my book deal for my first novel, Beside Myself, my journey through a wide range of the globe’s stories was the key that unlocked writing for me. Prior to that project, I had spent years churning out cramped, inward-looking little half-books. Reading the world blew my imagination open and let the fresh air in.

There were many aspiring wordsmiths to choose from for this venture. A large proportion of the people who have commented on the project post maintain their own blogs or write about reading in other ways. What’s more, a significant minority of these stated explicitly that they want to be writers (NB to those of you who said this, if you’re putting words on a screen or page, you already are a writer. Writing isn’t a state of being; it’s something you do. Keep going!)

In the end, however, it was the following comment from Cheche in the Philippines that caught my eye:

Hi Ann! I’m really hoping that I could take part in this fun adventure of yours!

I’m Cheche and I’m from one of the distant provinces here in the Philipppines! I’m 25 and diagnosed with leukemia last year. Thankfully, I’m now in remission but still under maintenance treatment. Before, I have always wanted to read books that are not related to school or medical stuffs (I graduated with a degree in Medical Technology) but didn’t had enough motivation to do so and ended up reading very very few ones only. Then came my diagnosis that made me stay in my bed and at home for most of my days. It was then I finally did the thing I’ve always wanted to do – read. But mostly as a distraction from depression or a time- killer. I was surprised to find myself able to finish a book in just one day! I know this is pretty much nothing for you guys who are bookworms but I have never done that before, especially that I was on weekly chemo at that time. I discovered how much I truly love reading. And now I have my blog which has been up for a few months now. I write about my experiences and also tried one daily prompt by WordPress out of desperation. Hahah! I don’t write fast and don’t publish in a daily or weekly basis. I learned that I am able to write better if I read more. I dig up the right inspiration to start a blog after reading stories of other cancer survivors as well. I admit I’m sort of running out of motivation again and I kind of beat myself up for this since I have only started writing for just a few months. It hasn’t even been a year and I can’t seem to find the words now.

Anyways, every time I go to the bigger city, I always try to find time to drop by at Booksale to rummage through some quality second hand books from US, Canada and other places in the world at very cheap prices. For months now, I haven’t been reading a book, physically, as I find myself enjoying the blogs and Long reads from WordPress. But I am really looking forward to getting myself smelling the pages of a book again! I’ll be going to the big city probably by the end of this month for a procedure and I’ll make sure to buy books good for 2 or 3 months. I like reading inspirational books, fiction or non-fiction, real stories of survival of whatever kinds of adversities. Also I would like to read books about cancer, healthy eating, lifestyle and healing.

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to share with you how reading made do something I have never thought I would ever do in my lifetime. And THANK YOU too for your utmost love for reading!

When I clicked through to Cheche’s blog, I found that her corner of the virtual world contains posts covering everything from making museli to tricycle rides. She writes a lot about her condition too. In particular, one post on the homepage stands out: To Be a Young Adult With Cancer in the Philippines. In this, Cheche describes the challenges that her condition brings, from the specific logistical issues that come with having leukaemia in her region to frustrations that must be familiar to young people battling illness everywhere:

‘With cancer, one thing is always certain- the sense of being a burden to everyone. People my age are supposed to be earning enough or maybe just starting out, but my circumstances called for unemployment. I can’t help but be angry at myself. Health and youth are supposed to go hand-in-hand, but in my case they don’t.’

I wanted to choose a book that might be a good source of companionship through the next stage of Cheche’s treatment. However, when I thought about the novels I had read to do with illness – from Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness to Seeing Red by Lina Meruane from Chile – I realised that, while many of them are brilliantly written, the majority are rather pessimistic in outlook.

As a result, I turned my mind to stories concerning people facing other extreme challenges. This made me remember the various books I have encountered about child soldiers. Although several of the fictional accounts, such as Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma from Côte d’Ivoire, are understandably bleak, one very uplifting narrative sprang into my thoughts: the memoir A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone.

(Indeed, this exercise made me realise something about memoir that had never occurred to me before: by its nature, it is an optimistic form. In order to write their story, the central personage has to have survived whatever challenges they describe and got to a place where they are able to look back, process and understand.)

Cheche, I hope this book inspires you. Like, The Circle of Karma, which I sent to Ashlee back in July, this is not a translation in the literal sense of the word because it was written in English, but in many ways it does the same work: it finds the language to take us into an experience that is thankfully alien to most of us. It is not an easy read because it deals with the full range of things that make us human, from the ugliest to the most beautiful impulses. But from what I know of you, I’m sure you’re able to cope with that.

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 next recipient will be announced on November 15.

Sierra Leone: hearts and minds

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I’d been trying to find an English-language Sierra Leonean alternative to work by Aminatta Forna for some time. I didn’t have anything against reading Forna – by all accounts she’s a very good writer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the British-born author had had a great deal of coverage since her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.

For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series, but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing. Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation – which is still recovering from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 – seemed to be decades old.

Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books. As fellow literary globetrotters can often be a great source of recommendations, I clicked through to her blog to see what she’d read so far. And there, staring back at me, was the answer to my Sierra Leonean quest: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of –and the steps by which any one of us might get there.

The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about. From the gruesome descriptions of the massacre sites Beah passed through in his years of wandering in the jungle after the war separated him from his family, to the mutilated messengers carrying the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) ultimatums to the villagers it planned to attack, the suffering unleashed by the annihilation of social structures in much of the country is gut-wrenching. In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out – such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight.

What stops the narrative from tipping over into the wallowing, sensationalist trauma memoir this book could so easily have been is the quality of Beah’s writing. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. We read how ‘the evening was waving its fingers, signaling night to approach’ and the boys ‘walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime’, and how the Atlantic Ocean sounded like ‘the roar of big engines, the rolling of metal drums on a tar road, a thunder exploding, roll after roll’ to Beah and his companions when they encountered it for the first time.

In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly. When Beah heard the story of what the RUF did to his friend Saidu’s parents and sisters, for example, we read that his ‘teeth became sour’, while, on the day the army lieutenant recruited the boys to fight ‘it seemed as if the sky were going to break and fall on the earth’.

Beah’s acute sense of the weight and value of words enables him to go where many other authors might fear to tread. From the drug-fuelled army initiation process and his trembling first touch of a gun, through to his initial kill, and on to the point where ‘killing had become as easy as drinking water’ and even a psychological need, Beah takes us through his own dehumanisation. Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs.

In light of this, Beah’s recovery, which we also witness step by painstaking step, and his account of his experiences are nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the memoir is one of the best things I’ve read. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world. You can’t ask much more.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Fourth Estate, 2007)