WITmonth pick #2: Paulina Chiziane

Woman voters stand on line at a rural polling station in Catembe on the second day of the elections. 28/Oct/1994. Catembe, Mozambique. UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

I have been wanting to read this book for more than four years. It came onto my radar during my Year of Reading the World in 2012, when I was finalising my choice for Mozambique. As I wrote in my post at the time, I had actually just read a novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto and was planning to post about it, when a comment from Miguel made me think twice.

Mia Couto was a literary cliché, he said. I should try to find something else – and Niketche by Paulina Chiziane, the nation’s first-published female novelist, would be a good starting point.

Loathe to be thought to have plumped for a cliché, I embarked on a quest to find an English version of Niketche, which did seem to have been published in translation. But when I contacted the publisher, it turned out that the firm had folded before it was able to release the book. A finished English-language version did not exist.

All was not lost as far as a good alternative to Mia Couto was concerned, however, as this conversation led to the manuscript translation of the extraordinary Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, an amazing book that richly deserves an English-language deal.

Yet, while Ualalapi still awaits an anglophone publisher, the last few years have brought good news for Chiziane’s novel. This summer, Archipelago Books launched a version titled The First Wife, translated by David Brookshaw, and I lost no time in snapping up a copy.

As the title suggests, the novel is about marriage – albeit in a rather different form to that which many of us in the English-speaking world are used to, at least at first glance. When Rami discovers that her husband of 20 years, police chief Tony, has been secretly conducting a series of concurrent, long-term extra-marital relationships – effectively practising a form of polygamy – she reacts furiously. Yet her anger quickly gives way to a desire to understand and challenge the warped gender dynamics that have seen her and so many women like her marginalised and silenced across the generations.

Embarking on a journey of personal discovery that leads her to question the traditions and assumptions that have shaped her life, Rami visits dubious love counsellors and wizards, and eventually joins forces with her husband’s unofficial wives to right the wrongs they suffer. In so doing, she reveals the extraordinary potential of female solidarity and exposes the hollowness of patriarchal power – uncovering a self-perpetuating system, in which those who appear to wield influence and to gain from inequality are often the most deluded and damaged of all.

This is a powerful and angry book. Portraying the myriad injustices to which Rami and her contemporaries are subject – from a welter of myths about women’s evilness and tendency to precipitate natural disasters, through cultural rules that dictate men should receive the best parts of the chicken to eat, to the appalling treatment of widows, whose possessions can be appropriated by their in-laws and whose bodies can be commandeered by their brothers-in-law for ‘sexual purification’ – Chiziane reveals the ‘litany that has sent women to sleep down the ages’.

Yet, for all its fury, the narrative is underpinned by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human experience. To Chiziane, the suffering experienced by her female characters is part of a loop of wrongdoing and hurt, in which all people are implicated. Rather than women against men, or them and us, gender inequality as seen through this author’s eyes is part of a wider, skewed system, which it behoves all humankind to correct. This is neatly summed up in the description of the ‘cycle of subordination’:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

This clear-eyed evaluation of the causes of subjection makes Rami’s discovery of her own agency and worth deeply touching. I was moved to tears by several passages towards the end of the novel, in which she and her friends revel in their femininity and celebrate womanhood – free at last from the mental fetters that formerly made them resent their gender.

The writing is urgent and surprising. As in Ualalapi, there are images that leap from the page and delight with their freshness. That said, there are a number of mixed metaphors that obstruct the sense. In addition, some English-language readers may struggle with the unfamiliar pacing, which makes some events seem rather abrupt, while other minor incidents stretch on for pages. Similarly, several episodes and thought processes are recounted on more than one occasion, which can be a little discombobulating.

These niggles are really beside the point, though. In addition to being a work of great imagination and creativity, this is an important book. As well as setting out a story that enables readers to feel the necessity of challenging patriarchal norms, it provides a compelling comment on the long shadow of colonialism and telling insights into the way tradition moulds minds.

Hats off to Archipelago Books for bringing this towering work to the English-speaking world. Might I persuade you to take on Ualalapi next?

The First Wife (Niketche) by Paulina Chiziane, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw (Archipelago Books, 2016)

Picture: ‘Elections in Mozambique’ by United Nations Photo on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #1: Lena Andersson

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At the start of August, I made a promise. I wrote a post pledging to read lots of translated books by women in a bid to find a truly brilliant female-authored translated title to feature as my book of the month. This was going to be my small contribution to Women in Translation Month, a campaign now in its third year, aiming to tackle the disproportionately small number of books by women that get English-language translation deals.

The first part of the pledge was easy. Drawing on a range of personal recommendations, comments on here, things I’d been wanting to tackle for ages and some excellent lists put together by supporters of the campaign, I read my way through 17 works, tweeting the titles as I went.

In fact, I was reading at roughly the same rate as I did during my original quest to read the world back in 2012. And just like that journey, this challenge took me to some intriguing places. From a remote girls’ boarding school in the mountains of Rwanda to Park Slope in Brooklyn and from 1980s China to 16th-century Peru, I found myself transported beyond the bounds of my imagination by the writers’ skill.

So far, so good. But then I was faced with the second part of the challenge: choosing one title to tell you about.

Here I came unstuck. There were simply too many excellent and extraordinary books among the selection for me to settle for reviewing just one. And so, in recognition of the fact that my original quest featured far more books by men than by women, I have decided to take this opportunity to redress the balance a little. I have selected five titles to review and add to the List over the next couple of weeks (in addition, of course, to redoubling my commitment to seek out great books by writers of all genders to feature at other times).

And so, without further ado, here is the first of the bunch.

If you ever need proof that a story does not need to be original to be powerful, you need look no further than Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. On the face of it, this slender novel tells a story so familiar you could barely call it a plot: Ester, a poet and essayist in her early 30s, falls for Hugo, an older artist, and has to deal with the painful consequences when her passion is not returned.

It sounds mundane. And yet the quotidian nature of the storyline is the secret of this book’s success. With no narratological fireworks to wow readers and no twists to keep the pages turning, it is left to Andersson and her translator Sarah Death to make the novel compelling by use of language and description alone.

And my goodness, they certainly do.

Andersson sets out her stall in the opening pages by showing us what words mean to her poet protagonist. Language, we learn, is only ever ‘an approximation’. As a result, ‘the dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.’ Indeed, at times, the impossibility of capturing things with words almost seems too much for Ester and her creator alike:

‘How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings.’

And yet, as so often happens when a writer expresses her frustrations at the limitations of her art, great writing is frequently in evidence in this book. It takes the form of succinct evocations and spare, precise descriptions amid a welter of rich perceptions about what human beings think and do. Some of these, such as the way obsession unfolds and the means by which we sabotage ourselves in the eyes of those we most want to charm, are timeless, but there are observations that feel very much of the moment too. The reflections on the torments experienced by anyone waiting for a text message from a love interest are particularly telling.

There’s humour in there too. The restaurant scene where Ester finds herself unable to order the same dessert as Hugo because she is cross with him and can’t appear to agree with him about anything is wonderful.

Indeed, the universality of so much of the story can make its local distinctiveness jar when it appears. There are episodes where Ester is direct in a way quite foreign to a British reader, but probably entirely natural to a resident of Stockholm.

And while we’re on the text’s disconcerting aspects, it must be said that not all Andersson’s pared-back descriptions find their mark. A few of the metaphors are distractingly odd and there are occasional word choices and repetitions (whether reflected in the original or introduced at the translation stage) that jolt and tremble the smooth train of the narrative.

But really these quibbles are nothing when set against the pleasure that comes from being absorbed in this story. Some books turn their own pages for you and this is such a one. Please Picador, can we have some more Lena Andersson in English?

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Picador, 2015)

Picture: Youthful Romance: The east end of Kungsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.com

Women in Translation month

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Now and then people ask me how many of the works that I read during my year of reading the world were written by female authors. This morning, I finally totted them up.

It turns out that of the 197 texts I read over the course of the quest, 53 were by women and 134 were by men. There were also nine mixed-gender group-authored books and one anonymous work (although most theories point to it having been written by a man). In all, then, 27 per cent of the literature I read in 2012 was by women.

When you consider that women make up 49.6 per cent of the global population (according to a 2015 UN report), it’s clear that my reading was not representative of the world’s demographics. However – without my realising it at the time – it was a fairly close reflection of the proportion of female-authored books that get translated into English.

The fact is that women authors have significantly less chance of getting an English-language book deal than their male counterparts. According to translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski, who has drawn on the excellent Three Percent Translation Database for her analysis, around 30 per cent of new translations in English are books by women writers.

The implications are clear: not only are we anglophone readers still only getting access to a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s stories, compared to the amount of translated literature published in many other parts of the world, but such works as do make it through the bottleneck add up to a rather skewed selection.

Eager to challenge and correct this imbalance, in 2014 Radzinski decided to name August ‘Women in Translation month’ (#WITmonth for those of the tweeting persuasion). The idea caught on, with numerous readers, bloggers, translators and booksellers jumping on the bandwagon to champion translated books written by women.

This August, for the third year in a row, #WITmonth is back and looking bigger than ever. A significant number of bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, France Germany and New Zealand have pledged to support it with displays of female-authored translations, and various other literature organisations and publications on both sides of the Atlantic are getting involved.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the campaign’s success is that #WITmonth is first and foremost a celebration. As translator Katy Derbyshire recently put it: ‘Women in Translation month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe.’

If you’d like to join the fun, Radzinski has put together a handy list of things you can do. This could be as simple as pledging to read a translated book by a female author sometime this month – in which case you might want to check out Radzinski’s database of translated books by women for inspiration.

And for those keen to explore the issue further, the activist group Women in Translation, founded by translators Alta L Price and Margaret Carson, has a great Tumblr site featuring a lot of the latest news on efforts to address gender inequality in the translation world.

For my part, I’ll be reading widely to find a brilliant female-authored work to feature as August’s book of the month. It’s a small gesture in the face of such marked inequality, but, as I discovered back in 2012, the way to read the world (and transform your view of it) is to go one story at a time.

Good news for women and translation

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Writing is a tricky career at the best of times. With thousands of titles published every day, the chances of selling enough books to make a living as a wordsmith are slim. Indeed, a study by Queen Mary University reported by the Telegraph earlier this year found that only a tenth of British authors are able to support themselves purely by writing – a sharp drop from the 40 per cent who claimed to be able to do so a decade ago.

If you write in a language other than English, your odds of making a decent living from your books are narrower still. With translations accounting for only around 4.5 per cent of the literary works published in the UK, deals in the world’s most published language are like hen’s teeth, meaning that the majority of foreign-language authors have access to a much smaller market than their anglophone counterparts.

And if you make the silly error of being born a woman, well, your chances of seeing your work made available to many of the world’s readers shrink yet further. As Alison Anderson reflected in an excellent piece for Words Without Borders back in 2013, the statistics don’t look good. According to figures from Open Letter Books’ Translation Database, for example, only around a quarter of translated works published in the US each year are by women.

Many international literary prizes show an even sharper discrepancy. The fact that only two women authors have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its 25-year history is a case in point.

In the three years that I’ve been involved with English PEN’s PEN Translates funding programme, I’ve seen this imbalance first hand. Over the past five or six rounds, we have often struggled to award grants to more than a handful of female authors. This is not because of a lack of will to support women writers on the part of the panel, but because the applications have overwhelmingly been for books written by men.

So it’s great to be able to share the news that this latest round of grants achieves gender parity for the first time. Eight of the 16 writers whose books have been supported are women, with the languages represented including Korean, Mandarin and Turkish. Authors range from well-known names such as Han Kang, whose novel, The Vegetarian, was published to great acclaim in the UK this year, and Prix Goncourt winner Lydie Salvayre, to wordsmiths likely to be unfamiliar to anglophone readers, such as Karmele Jaio, who writes in Basque.

The supported titles should be out in the next year or so. Great news for readers and writers alike. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come.

Picture: Four of the best translated books by women I’ve read recently.

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)

Eritrea: heart and home

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]’ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

Kenya: a momentous proposal


Say the words ‘Kenyan writer’ to most world literature fans and they will come back with one name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Imprisoned for speaking out against injustice and corruption, the author of such landmark books as A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow abandoned English to write in his first language Gikuyu in the late seventies. He is revered around the world for his work and his passionate advocacy and has been given many awards, seven honorary doctorates and held numerous visiting professorships.

It seemed a no-brainer that I would read one of this literary giant’s novels as my Kenyan choice. But then I heard about Philo Ikonya. Arrested repeatedly for her human rights activism and living in exile in Norway since 2009, the poet and novelist is an avid blogger and journalist, as well as a keen linguist. She is also president of PEN Kenya.

Intrigued though I was to read the work of Kenya’s great man of letters, Ikonya and her oddly titled novel Kenya, Will You Marry Me? piqued my interest. I decided to give it a go.

In a nutshell, the novel is a love story. It gives an account of a life-long passion for and relationship with the country Kenya in all its exuberance and raw pain. Growing up in a village near Nairobi, the young narrator uses dolls to act out and embody some of the conflicts she sees around her, while flashes forward and backward in time and stories from other relatives and friends bring home the personal consequences of such traumatic events as the attempted coup of 1982 and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the rigged election of 2007, as well as the long shadow of colonialism. Hurt but not discouraged by all that she has seen, the young woman transforms herself into the embodiment of Change during the course of the narrative, urging her fellow countrymen and women to get behind her and appealing to the nation she loves to unite itself with her.

Nationhood and what it means to belong to a country bind the narrative like the spine of the book. Frequently speaking about Kenya as a person, the narrator emphasises that ‘history and politics live in homes’, showing how events in parliament pervade even the bed sheets and the cooking pots of the most remote villages. This sense of the interconnectedness of national and domestic events is coupled with a great love and celebration of the beauty of the land and, as the narrator’s grandfather explains, a ‘greater love [which] is to realise that these are only ours for some time and that your children must find them still here’.

As a result of her intense connection with her country, the narrator feels every threat to its wellbeing as a personal attack. This leads to a barrage of righteous anger against the injustice of colonial rule, the heartlessness and corruption of politicians, the cruel rapes suffered by many of the country’s women and children, and the fact that ‘people gifted with melanin continued to be left out of the game’. Often, this takes the form of powerful, rhetorical addresses in which the narrator apostrophises various groups in her effort to galvanise them into positive action, taking in everyone from her dolls and her compatriots, to corrupt politicians and even Western readers:

‘You, most of you, in the West have the comfort of analyzing what you call deception, we are grateful for the small straws of hope we see near us. We cannot afford to shun all.’

Ikonya’s poetic sense comes through strongly in the narrative, adding subtle layers of meaning. Whether she’s playing with rhymes to make deeper points – ‘I have never been able to hear the word “bribe” without seeing “tribe”. Vice like lice lives in families too’ – or stripping back the etymology of place names and sexual terms to reveal the power struggles that lie beneath, she uses words richly, milking them for every last drop of significance.

Readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history and politics, as I was, will sometimes struggle to follow the narrative, which is often essentially a stream of consciousness ‘crisscross[ing] years, beating arrangements in books’. In addition, the novel’s fragmented and free-flowing nature means that there is often very little to drive it forward other than the narrator’s passion. The fingers begin to itch to flick in the last third where earlier polemics on corruption and women’s rights are reprised without much development.

Nevertheless the commitment and fervour of the narrator carry the day. As a portrait of patriotism, this stands in stark contrast to the rather anaemic if not downright cynical expressions of national pride we tend to hear in the UK. It is an urgent reminder of the importance of politics and the influence that individuals can have on events larger than themselves. No wonder the people in power felt threatened.

Kenya, Will You Marry Me? by Philo Ikonya (Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2011)

 

Iran: gender politics

I was tempted to choose Nasrin Alavi’s We are Iran as my Iranian book. Compiled from a series of blogs translated from Farsi, this book – or blook – caused a great deal of controversy when it burst on to the literary scene in 2005, purporting to provide Western readers with an unprecedented survey of contemporary Iranian thought. However, the book had had a fair bit of attention in the media and something about the way the texts in it had been curated for the Western eye made me hesitate – probably entirely unfairly, given that arguably every text in translation has been selected and prepared with English-language readers in mind.

Then I heard about Shahrnush Parsipur. Something of a trailblazer throughout her life, from being one of the first female students at the University of Tehran through to becoming one of Iran’s best-known and most innovative novelists, Parsipur captured my imagination. Her epic novel Touba and the Meaning of Night, which was published in 1989 just three years after Parsipur’s release from prison, caused controversy for its exploration of religion and gender power relations, as well as its departure from the literary style common before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It finally became available in English translation in 2006, the year after the much-vaunted We are Iran. I was going to have to take a look.

Spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel presents an alternative reading of the history of Iran through the eyes of one woman, Touba, who grows up, marries, divorces, remarries and grows old during the course of it. As dynasties rise and fall and the world moves towards its bloodiest war, Touba embarks on a struggle for supremacy in her own life, finding herself drawn towards Sufism as a possible escape from the oppressive rules and judgments of a society that increasingly forces her to be a prisoner within the walls of her house.

Right from the opening passage, in which a scantily clad teenage Touba cleans the courtyard pool under the disapproving gaze of her tenant’s wives, Parsipur sets out the limitations imposed on women as a central theme in the book. Sometimes, as when Touba’s father reflects that bringing strange women into his home to work might be dangerous because ‘they might participate in some perverse activities with one another’, this is done with wry humour.

More usually, however, it has a much darker side. This initially reveals itself when 14-year-old Touba narrowly escapes a beating from her first husband for going out for a walk alone and later becomes painfully obvious in the story of the raped girl who, on revealing she is pregnant, is killed by her uncle Mirza Abuzar and buried under a tree in the garden. Touba’s reaction to the news is telling:

‘She was filled with the sense of guilt. She wanted to ask Mirza Abuzar why he had not discussed the matter with her. Then she thought, if he had mentioned it, would she have done anything? A living girl who has a bastard child in her is hateful and defiled. The same girl, however, if she is killed like this, will be chosen to be among the Pure Ones. She was realizing that she probably would have done nothing for the girl, or could have done nothing. She tried to put herself in Mirza Abuzar’s place. She truly felt sorry for him.’

Parsipur’s ability to think her way inside her characters like this means that the narrative is far from a one-sided polemic on the oppression of women. Even the most difficult of characters, such as the sinister Prince Gil and the sullen child Ismael who harbours murderous intentions towards Touba because of his anger at the loss of his parents, are presented as rounded and complex individuals with insight and thought processes that often surprise.

This multiplicity of perspectives and Parsipur’s use of elements of magic in her storytelling, give the narrative a sense of plurality that cuts across time and space. Often, in the embedded stories and mini-tales that Parsipur weaves into the novel, it seems as though the author is digging back into the past to gain the depth and distance that will allow her to tell contemporary truths.

The pacing is strange at times, partly due to the sheer scope of the story, which contains so many characters that the editors saw fit to list them all at the start of the book. As a result, the narrative moves in fits and starts, lingering over details only to jerk forward, sometimes skimming over incidents that seem to deserve more attention. This can be frustrating and leaves you glancing back over your shoulder now and then as a major character whizzes past into oblivion, like the stop you expected to get off at the moment you realise you’ve unintentionally caught the fast train.

On the whole, though, there can be no question that this is a towering achievement. Packed with insights, historical detail and rich compelling storytelling, the translation of this epic work opens up a world quite different from the one many English-readers will be used to. A rich addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tuba va ma’na-ye shab) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006)

Namibia: marital ties

I started reading this book while sitting in a television studio waiting to be interviewed about A Year of Reading the World by Isha Sesay for her NewsCenter show on CNN International. I was quite nervous and sitting at the newsreader’s desk with lots of cameras and screens with my face on them leering down at me wasn’t the most relaxing of places to be reading, so it’s a testament to the power of Neshani Andreas’s storytelling that The Purple Violet of Oshaantu managed to draw me in all the same.

Published in 2001 and already considered a classic, the novel follows Mee Ali and her friend Kauna as they struggle against the patriarchal structures of society in rural northern Namibia. When Kauna’s abusive and unfaithful husband Shange dies suddenly, the women feel the full force of the way society is weighted against them and it is left to Mee Ali to help her companion rise above the waves of prejudice, avarice and cruelty that threaten to wash her away.

Andreas excels at capturing the little details that tell us everything we need to know about a character’s emotional state. From the incongruous reactions that show mental turbulence, as when Kauna laughs hysterically in the wake of discovering her husband’s body, to the flashes of insight that strike through everyday conversations, shedding light on secrets and fears, the narrative is full of riches. I particularly liked Mee Ali’s description of Kauna’s in-laws’ responses to her sensible suggestion that they should wait for doctors to determine the cause of Shange’s death instead of jumping to conclusions: ‘They looked at me as if I had another head, that of a cow perhaps. Did I look foolish?’

These insights make Andreas’s portrayal of the injustice of women’s lot very powerful. Interspersing the narrative with accounts of the extreme suffering inflicted on wives in the community, such as the public breakdown of Mee Namutenya when her husband takes a second wife and Mee Sara’s persecution by witch doctors on the death of her husband, Andreas presents a controlled and compelling argument against the practices that have so long been justified as tradition. Perhaps the most memorable of these concerns Mee Ali’s indignant reaction to the way her own happy marriage to Michael is viewed by her community:

‘Now this. “Oh, he doesn’t beat you? You are lucky.” I am really tired of it all. Yes, Michael is a good man and I am grateful for that. I just don’t know what people want me to do. Kneel down at his feet and say, “Thank you, Michael, for marrying a low class”? I am not lucky. I simply do not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal.’

Yet although the village women police and persecute each other through gossip, there is nevertheless an underlying sense of community and mutual support that erupts to the surface now and then with joyous results. Chief among these moments is the time when Kauna screws up her courage to ask her neighbours to come and do okakungungu [join together to work on her land] so that she can get her field dug before the rains come. The subsequent scene when the women respond to her call is incredibly moving.

Occasionally the time shifts can be a little disorientating. In addition, the long chunks of dialogue sometimes make the narrative feel more like a play script than a novel.

As a whole though, this is a powerful and important work by a writer who deserves her place among Africa’s literary greats. It certainly helped to calm my nerves.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas (Heinemann, 2001)