Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021

From that longlist of 49 novels here, nominated by libraries from all around the world, today a shortlist of six novels was announced. 

Bernardine Evaristo Valeria Luiselli Colum McCann Ocean Vuong Colson Whitehead

I’ve only read one, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and unfortunately despite the lyrical language, it wasn’t for me. I did recently read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and have heard good things about The Nickel Boys.

I would love to read Lost Children Archive having read her long essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (a nonfiction narrative of Luiselli’s stay in NY and decision to assist child migrants who travel alone to the US to fill in the 40 question survey they must respond to within 21 days of arrival) in preparation to read her novel. And Girl, Woman, Other is another I’ll get around to eventually.

Colum McCann is an author I have enjoyed in the past, but a 500 page novel wading into the Israeli Palestinian narrative by focusing on two families who lost daughters and develop a friendship, sits uncomfortably, described by Susan Abulharwa as a colonialist misstep in commercial publishing.

Here is what the judges had to say about these six titles:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)(nominated by Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia, Spain)

Lost Children Archive“Two journeys—one of countless migrant children making their way up from Central America and Mexico to the US border, and another of a fragile young family taking a road trip down from New York to the Mexican border—come together in this imaginative, heartfelt, and entirely original novel.

Interweaving works of literature, music, maps, photographs, and other documents with multiple narrative voices, Luiselli has composed a masterpiece that is at once an exhilarating, lyrical road novel and an unsparing meditation on dislocation, remembering, and storytelling. Timely and timeless, Lost Children Archive is an immersive work that transports, unsettles, and ultimately elevates the reader.”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (UK)(nominated by libraries in Germany and Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021“A magnificent book fuelled by its own unique energy – one which catapults the novel form into an original, exhilarating direction. Twelve women’s lives are vigorously revealed, each character given an individual chapter of their own. And yet within these chapters Evaristo skilfully weaves all of their worlds together.

The result: an astonishing tapestry of women’s lives – flaws and all – and of the wide-ranging and spirited experiences that have made them who they are. A bravura feat of storytelling by a writer at the top of her game, which vividly celebrates the voices of intergenerational black British women in contemporary times.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (nominated by libraries in Canada, Mexico and the USA)

Fitzcarraldo Editions Translated Fiction“Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a ferocious novel that challenges and astonishes in equal measure. It portrays the most painful margins of a Mexican underworld of poverty and corruption, a universe dominated by a merciless violence that is deeply embedded in the community and in the actions and thoughts of its inhabitants, almost obscuring ant trace of empathy and humanity.

The novel’s hyperrealist language displays striking power, a direct, brutal and incisive energy that transports you headlong into the centre of a hurricane where there seems to be little hope or redemption. Sophie Hughes’ English translation succeeds in transmitting the expressive force and richness of Melchor’s Spanish. It is a novel that does not give you a break and that drags you in its verbal current, so torrential and intense, towards the darkest entrails of humankind, where the shadows live. An extraordinary book.”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Ireland) (nominated by South Dublin Libraries, Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist“They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories”— Exploring Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin’s friendship and peace activism after the killings of their young daughters, Colin McCann’s novel Apeirogon, true to its title, ambitiously presents “a countably infinite number of sides” in its expansive exploration of injustice, loss, relationality and resilience.

Its visionary mapping of displacements and returns, as well as its inventive structure of fragments and blank spaces open up alternative narrative pathways for the histories and futures of Palestine and Israel, powerfully suggesting that “Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.”

On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese/American)(nominated by libraries in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland & the USA)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong“Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is characterised by the same lyricality and powerful use of language he employs in his poetry. The novel takes the form of an extended letter.

A young Vietnamese America man writes to his mother sharing his story and revealing how his story’s inseparably bound to hers. As Vuong’s narrator finds his voice he entertains questions of class and ethnicity, language and sexuality. It’s a captivating and tender story shot through with moments of pure, unsettling humanity. Vuong wants his readers to see that even the most mundane of moments can be briefly gorgeous and transformative.”

The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead (American) (nominated by libraries in Belgium and the USA)

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead“Colson Whitehead’s emerged as a leading chronicler of African-American experience with The Underground Railroad in 2016. Where The Underground Railroad was expansive in its imagination, The Nickel Boys returns to the traumas of African-American history with a very different literary style. Set in a juvenile institution in Florida – the ‘Nickel Academy’ – in 1960s, Whitehead here writes with a pared-down narrative and prose style, tracing the scars of the past in the lives of the present. The writing is spare, clean, and direct; and the result is a novel that not only casts light on a dark moment of African-American history, but also speaks to stories of institutional abuse everywhere.”

The winner will be announced on 20 May 2021 as part of the opening day programme of the International Literature Festival Dublin.

Have you read any of these or do you plan to?

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

Reflections From Life

constellations-sinead-gleesonAn excellent collection of essays, of life writing with a particular connection to the body and how women negotiate life when part(s) of it malform and interrupt the ordinary course of a life, making it something extraordinary.

Extraordinary it is, that Gleeson went through all she has until now and managed to create a family and birth this wonderful book, not to mention curating The Glass Shore and The Long Gaze Back, two anthologies that celebrate Irish women writers.

Just as the cover displays the image of a body with numbered sections, inside the book the chapters are labelled with small diagrams that represent a key to the constellations, adding another layer of metaphor and meaning for the reader to ponder.

The Many Diagnoses and A Commitment

As a young girl, the author was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis, rare to discover in a young person, it would mark the beginning of a lifetime of interventions, all of which might have had more devastating consequences, but Gleeson possesses a remarkable ability to rally, recover and live life on her own terms, despite the heavy price her body puts upon her.

The essays share the struggles, the shame, the hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief, of witness to a deteriorating mind, the many varied experiences that might represent weakness in the body, however they have all contributed to creating and moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring.

On the night of her leukemia diagnosis, not being able to face telling her parents she asked the nurse to break the news and then prepared herself to see them.

“I will never forget their faces, their incomprehension and tears. Amid all the wrongness of that moment, I knew something was required of me. To hide my fear and offer them a glimpse of a future none of us knew had any certainty. I have no memory of this but my mother told me years later that I looked into her face and said, ‘I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.’ To commit to writing, or art, is to commit to living. A self imposed deadline as a means of continued existence. It has taken me a long time to write that book and here I am, so very far from that awful night.”

A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light

The essay I found the most moving comes near the end is named after an Anne Carson poem ‘ A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’ which explores the relationship with art and creativity as a way to channel or express what is being felt. She is moved by the work and motivations of Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence, Lucy Grealy.

“Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

Art Creativity The Body Compromised.jpg

The Body Compromised by Allia Jen Yousef (2001-2019)

Spence’s medium was photography; an ageing, sick, working class woman, she sought representation, visibility, her series Phototherapy, focused on the intersection between arts, health and well-being, combining comic and feminist ideas, outward expressions to promote inner healing or peace, disruptive to the viewer, soothing to the artist.

“Representing a diagnosis – in art, words or photos – is an attempt to explain to ourselves what has happened, to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in our way. Perhaps articulating a life-changing illness is part of recovery. But so is finding the kind of articulation that is personal to you.”

I was reminded while reading of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am memoir that I read in January, it similarly tracks events (seventeen brushes with death) and turning points in a life that invite pause and reflection, some more dramatic than others.

I read Constellations as part of #ReadingIrelandMonth21. Have you read any good Irish non fiction this month?

Sinéad Gleeson

A writer of essays, criticism and fiction, her writings have appeared in Granta, Winter Papers and Gorse. Constellations won Non Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2019.

Further Reading Irish Nonfiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Handiwork by Sara Baume

An Affair With My Mother by Catriona Palmer

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Reading Ireland 2021

During March every year Cathy at 746 Books runs a Reading Ireland Month, inviting other readers to participate, so it’s a good time to check what’s sitting on the shelf, to read in the company of others on something of a common theme.

I’m already participating in her year long Brian Moore at 100 ReadAlong and when Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s nonfiction book A Ghost in the Throat became my Outstanding Read of 2021, I began to seek out more titles by Irish Women Writers.

So I can also recommend my recent reads by Sara Baume, her beautiful work of creative nonfiction Handiwork that tracks the course of a year as she writes and sculpts small birds and vainly attempts to lure a few passing migratory species into her small garden. So entranced by her words, I ventured into her fiction and loved Spill Wither Falter Simmer and still have one more, A Line Made By Walking to read.

This week the focus was on short stories, so I chose to read Tangleweed and Brine and next week nonfiction, so I have two titles lined up Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I am currently reading and Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh a story of a wild Ireland, a mix of memoir, nature writing and social history, which looks very promising.

Disruptive Feminist Retellings of Classic Fairy Tales

I picked up Deirdre Sullivan’s two books for a change of genre and due to the intrigue of what her work promised. In 2020 I read Savage Her Reply a retelling of the Children of Lir, a fairy tale I wasn’t familiar with, but thoroughly enjoyed, not just the storytelling but the use of calligrams, poems and the language of Ogham, morsels on the side but subjects that a reader can get quite carried away with, inspiring one’s own creativity, as I found out, collecting small branches, twigs and leaves to adorn the word poems.

Tangleweed and Brine

Tangleweed and BrineWhile Savage Her Reply was a long version of just one tale, in Tangleweed and Brine, we have an entire collection, cleverly separated into seven tangled tales of earth, and six salty tales of water. They can be dipped in and out of and are best read over a period of time, because they demand our attention, require reflection and strip the old tales of their illusory inclinations, suggesting quite frankly what really was going on with Red Riding Hood and her fellow heroines.

It helps to be familiar with the tales before reading, because they aren’t told as they might be to a child. These stories are narrated by the author, often in the second person “you” voice, acknowledging and bearing witness to our heroine, recounting what she experienced back to her and to us, the reader – we who thought we knew, because you know, we read those stories or had them read to us – we now sit back and read in shock, the harsh reality of these women’s lives. Sullivan is paying homage, setting the record straight, we must not turn away. No longer.

So which tales are twisted, those that glorified these heroines lives and made us believe in Prince Charming, bad witches and vicious wolves or these tales that tell of brave and resilient heroines, surviving betrayals, neglect, judgement, cruelty, abandonment and finally have their stories told by the courageous, intuitive teacher, seer, Ms Sullivan.

Part One – Tangleweed

Slippershod (Cinderella)

Cast thoughts aside of which slipper she wears and what she dreams of, Cinderella has a different destiny and the memory of a truer love, she is resourceful and retains her inner self-worth; She is patient and knows when to act.

“Stretching on the bed, with soft bread in your mouth, the taste of butter, you wonder what they are doing at the ball. Who the prince will dance with. The love he’ll choose, the girls he will discard. There’s nothing gentle in that kind of power. You close your eyes. There is a different world. Where people do things, make things. Carve them out. You breathe the thick, soft air. It smells of hops. You smile and square your shoulders. Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spread wide and you have flown, you’ve flown.”

The Woodcutter’s Bride (Red Riding Hood)

Tangleweed and Brine Deirdre SullivanThis tale can be told by the title and beautiful illustration by Karen Vaughan. There is one picture for every story and within them often lurk clues. As I read the opening paragraphs and saw the illustration, the reality of who really was the wolf, the colour of that cape, hit me like a punch. The horror of those trophies. 

“When I was a small girl something happened to me in the forest. I can’t recall exactly what it was. It’s hard to trust tales from the lips of grandmothers; they come out wrong, too dirty or too clean. Since then I have not felt the same about the forest, I liked it once I think or I think I think. It’s beautiful but on its inky edges  something stirs to fidget with my gut. It’s getting dark; my husband will be home soon. I bite down on my lips to make them red.

Come Live Here and Be Loved (Rapunzel)

“Your husband’s face afraid when you inform him. A happy sort of fear.  To grow a person is no little thing. It isn’t like a turnip or a spud. It’s not so simple, weaving vein and bone. Your sense of smell wolf-sharp and, oh, the hunger. You ache with it.  It gnaws at you, untrammelled through your gut. The pang of it so sharp, like teeth, like fury. A starving ache that cannot be suppressed.”

You Shall Not Suffer (Hansel and Gretel)

She lives in a world that discards the weak easily, she prefers to save lives, to nurture, or at least try to save them. She doesn’t fit the mould of what is expected, so she chooses another way, another life, a way to be herself, a house in the woods. When they abandon their litters now, they blame the witch in the woods, yet still they come to her for help, seek her healing powers.

“You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft thing small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sister Fair (Fair, Brown and Trembling)

This is an Irish fairy tale of three sisters, that was unknown to me, one of jealousy, betrayal and redemption.

“It’s not about being sensible, or strong. It’s not about being kind. It’s not about the  soft touch and the kind heart.  Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.”

Ash Pale (Snow White)

coniferous trees covered with snow in sunny winter day

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

This story turns the classic tale on its head and Snow White uses skills Her mother taught her to ensure she isn’t dispossessed of her place, when her father remarries. 

“You look at her the same way you always did. Perhaps a little kinder. Now that she’s disappearing. Not a threat. You can see her folding into herself like crumpled parchment. Changing who she is to please him.”


Part Two – Brine

Consume Or Be Consumed (A Little Mermaid)

This was actually the first tale I read, especially after finishing Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters in which we are led to believe that one of the protagonists is seduced by a siren. Here the mermaid spends time among humans and sees what it is to be a woman, the sacrifice.

“These things with half of you on pairs of legs. They don’t look right.  There’s something off about it.  You often stare. Sometimes you close your eyes. So many of them. So much of this world.

On land, a woman doesn’t matter much.  You miss it. Or you used to. Your skin is slightly tinged with subtle blue.  They think that makes you lady-like. The colour of a person matters here. Who were you once, and what was done to you. They speculate. A quiet thing is often seen as docile. They say their secrets, spew out all their bile as you sit silently beside the window. Staring at the waters, lapping out. Everything is still here, always, always. And it should move. You long for it to move.”

Doing Well (The Frog Prince)

woman wearing crown holding frog figurine

Photo: Susanne JutzelerPexels.com

A terrible tale of a princess born into bondage, to a frog, she has no choice, no say, no rights. She belongs to this slimy amphibian and must do his bidding, worse than a slave.

“You have been marked from birth for just this purpose. Cloistered with the others. Secret spaces deep within this space where girls are trained. But there are passageways to keep you safe.”

The Tender Weight (Bluebeard)

Originally a French folktale, this story is given a different twist, though the inevitability of its outcome remains. A story of repetitions, of a curse, of an attempt to break it, of an unfounded reputation, a desire to break free.

“You do not have to ask him what he did.  You know that it was nothing. There doesn’t have to be a reason here The world will steal what little crumbs you grasp. The loves you have can die and be reborn.The memory of pain will cling. Will cling. And you will never let yourself forget. That this has happened.”

Riverbed (Donkeyskin)

two brown donkeys

Photo by chris carroll on Pexels.com

Another French fairytale originally from 1695, in which a daughter has to resort to extremes to protect herself from her father’s indecorous intentions. In this retelling,rather than hide and wait for him to come to his senses and she retain her good virtue, the young woman is uncompromising, will time her strike, will be as effective and more virtuous in her rule. And pay homage to the innocnet hard-working, long-suffering donkey.

“There is a soft rebellion to a donkey. It is a working thing. But it resents. I am fond of this. When I am cold or lonely in the castle. When I’m afraid, I often find myself around the stables, stroking them as long as they permit. Which is a goodly time. They trust me now. I earned it. Growing up, and being gentle, kind.”

The Little Gift (The Goose Girl)

Another from the Brothers Grimm collection, originally this story tells the tale of a maid servant who turns on her princess when they are travelling and forces her to swap places, making an oath never to tell. The princess becomes the maid who cares for the geese, until the prince learns of what took place and tricks the false princess into choosing her punishment. In the retelling, we learn whose idea it was to change places, the reneging on a promise, betrayal. What some will do for love, the selfishness of the entitled.

“A goose can try its best to be a swan. Conceal the ruddy beak, the grating honk. But swans as geese? The air cries out to them. It’s not enough. They want clean sheets and gold. The softer life. And when I visit and stroke her face, I see her clear blue eyes upon my jewels. She does not see their weight, only their lustre. She knows they should be hers. She wants them back.”

Beauty and the  Board (Beauty and the Beast)

The death of the mother leaves Beauty vulnerable, but there is a presence she can contact through the board, invite in for her protection, to deal with the ever present danger. She becomes they.

“You are a thing. A beast without a home. I know that, how it feels. And I would have you share a place in me.”

Further Reading

Article: What Will Build and Break a Girl: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Tangleweed and Brine is a book about women within fairy-tales. And their internal lives, as they realise their place in the world. How trapped they are. Some of them rebel, and some retreat. I wanted to write about different sorts of women, quiet ones and strong ones, women with different shaped bodies, different shaped brains. I wanted to take the stories of my childhood, and put the things we learn early on into a world where marrying a stranger is seen as a happy ending, and pride is something women shouldn’t feel.


The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Brilliant. I absolutely loved this novel and it will definitely feature in my Best Reads of 2021.

Best African Women Writers UgandaThe First Woman might even have surpassedher debut novel Kintu which was fabulous and my outstanding read of 2018.

Firstly I am a huge fan of literature that takes us elsewhere, into the storytelling traditions of other cultures, seen from the inside, told in a way that doesn’t alienate a reader from outside that culture, but has both a particular and universal message. And secondly, when a novel has all the essential storytelling elements.

And Jennifer Makumbi’s storytelling has all the elements – great, unforgettable characters, a ‘moving at pace’ plot, a little bit of mystery, a whole lot of feminism, plus controversy, multiple perspectives, mini dramas and the wise counsel of women who’ve had enough of past injustices.

Then there is the contrast of the rural life and upbringing versus an urban existence, the striving for and effect of education on girls and the natural way that local Ugandan folklore and ancestral stories are interwoven throughout their way of living, learning and coming of age. They create a sense of belonging and help young people navigate their concerns, sorrows, strange feelings and unanswered questions in a thought provoking and entertaining way

In Kintu, Makumbi set part of her story in the pre-colonial 1700’s and other parts in modern times; colonial interlopers had left their imprint, but it was not their story nor a story of their influence and so too The First Woman belongs to and is born of its people, whose existence grows and evolves from their unique origins, belief systems and traditions. Their challenges come from within their culture and again Makumbi focuses on what is uniquely Ugandan.

The narrative begins when Kirabo is a teenage living with her grandmother, she develops a curiosity to know who her mother is, she is awakening to a perceived deficit in her life and notices that those closest to her are unwilling to talk about it. So she seeks out Nsuutu, who some refer to as the witch, intuitively knowing she may have knowledge, visiting her in secret.

Though Nsuutu was practically blind, behind her blindness she could see. But Nsuutu was not just a witch – she was Grandmother’s foe. Their feud was Mount Kilimanjaro. Apparently, Nsuutu had stolen love from the family.

Nsuutu tells Kirabo that she has “the original state” of the first woman inside her. This explanation and story is shared over various visits and sets up an extremely compelling narrative, as Kirabo learns from this wonderful, empowered but ageing feminist. However, she is warned her not to go looking for her mother, an instruction that feeds her obsession, making it all-consuming.

‘We changed when the original state was bred out of us.’ Kirabo looked at her hands as if to see the change. ‘Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?

‘No, it was not bad at all. In fact, it was wonderful for us. We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you. But in all cases it is suppressed. In your case the first woman flies out of your body because it does not relate to the way this society is.’

The First Woman Ugandan Literature

US Cover Version

The story is divided into five sections; The Witch (Nattetta, Bugerere, Uganda 1975), The Bitch (Kampala 1977), Utopia, When The Villages Were Young (Nattetta 1934) and Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other (1983).

After Nsuutu’s wise counsel, Kirabo’s life is upended when it is announced she will go to Kampala to live with her father Tom, about whom she has never been curious. She has seen him on and off over the years as he visited the clan in the village where she lives, but now she will go and live with him in the city, where it becomes clear that much more had been hidden from her.

Nsuutu held both her hands. ‘Don’t judge the women you met too harshly.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Often, what women do is a reaction. We react like powerless people. Remember kweluma?’

‘When women bite themselves because they are powerless.’

‘Tell me that whatever happens, you will not make another woman’s life worse.’

‘I won’t, Nsuuta!’ Kirabo was miffed that Nsuutu would ask.

‘Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life.’

Utopia‘ is when she is sent to St Theresa’s, a girl’s boarding school. An education, a world without men, though interrupted by war and expulsions that occur elsewhere, having the effect of changing the balance of power and perception among the girls as well, many will leave and a new influx will arrive. It is also the period where her friendship with Sio develops.

St Theresa’s was a safe space for them to develop their talents without intimidation, interference or interruption. They owed it to themselves, and to all other girls who did not have their privilege, to excel and to change the world. ‘Our job is to arm the girl child with with tools so she can live a meaningful life, for herself and for the nation.’

The narrative then returns to the past, to 1934 when her grandmother Alikisa and Nsuutu were children and fills in the backstory to their friendship, a pact, their very different aspirations and the effect of the community on how their lives play out. Much of this section is told through letters they write to each other while Nsuutu is at nursing school and Alikisa is at home, having abandoned her plans to become a midwife, encouraged by her father towards teaching.

Finally, a family tragedy brings the entire clan together, and opinions are aired, grievances followed through, threads come together, some rifts are healed, others not, but there is the opportunity to break new ground, and move on from the past, without significant loss.

The First Woman KintuThe First Woman is bold, empowered, authentic storytelling of the highest order, that embraces its cultural origins and exposes the reader to universal emotions, questions, conflicts, shame, friendships, love and humanity it shares.

It is both a story and an act of courage that provokes men and women to consider their roles and the effect their decisions have on others, to consider alternatives, seeking a kinder, more just way of being, rather than repeating the same patters that have existed.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My review of Kintu

Guardian Review: A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu by Alex Clark

Article, Johannesburg Review of Books : A Triump of a Novel: The First Woman can be read as Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s answer to people who like to defend patriarchal power by claiming that feminism is ‘not African’, writes Itumeleng Molefi.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 LongList

Women's Prize Fiction Winner logo 20212020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a feat that was celebrated by the creation of a reading challenge to read all the winners including last year’s Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

There was a competition to find the winner of winners chosen by the reading public, and that award went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel Half of A Yellow Sun (2007).

Interviews, Recommendations, Opinion, On Writing

The team at the Women’s Prize have been active throughout the year and their website is a repository of much more than just longlists and winners.

There are regular features such as interviews with previous winners and nominees, recommendations from judges, for example this years judges Recommendations for Black History Month and Books You Should Discover in 2021.

There is an Opinion Section where you can read about Comedy in Fiction; Women Writer’s Revisited; and the On Writing Section where you can read Twelve Creative Tips From Women’s Prize Winning Authors.

Women’s Prize Fiction 2021 Long List

In the meantime, another season has come around and here are the 16 novels long listed, along with a short summary of their plot. It includes two Irish authors, six British and five American authors, one Canadian, one Barbadian and one Ghanaian/American.

Womens Literature Fiction

The list features new and well-established writers across a range of genres and themes – family (twins and siblings, mother-daughter relationships); motherhood; rural poverty and isolation; addiction; identity and belonging; race and class; grief and happiness; coming-of-age and later life.

I have only read one (review linked below) but I do have Transcendent Kingdom to read. I’m disappointed not to see The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi on the list, which I just finished today and is an outstanding novel, I highly recommend.

Passing twinsThe Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (American)- The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Summer by Ali Smith (British)- In the present, Sacha knows the world’s in trouble. Her brother Robert just is trouble. Their mother and father are having trouble. Meanwhile the world’s in meltdown – and the real meltdown hasn’t even started yet. In the past, a lovely summer. A different brother and sister know they’re living on borrowed time. This is a story about people on the brink of change. They’re family, but they think they’re strangers. So: where does family begin? And what do people who think they’ve got nothing in common have in common?

Summer is the unmissable conclusion to Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet.

Torrey PetersDetransition Baby by Torrey Peters (American)- Reese nearly had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York, a job she didn’t hate. She’d scraped together a life previous generations of trans women could only dream of; the only thing missing was a child. Then everything fell apart and three years on Reese is still in self-destruct mode, avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.

When her ex calls to ask if she wants to be a mother, Reese finds herself intrigued. After being attacked in the street, Amy de-transitioned to become Ames, changed jobs and, thinking he was infertile, started an affair with his boss Katrina. Now Katrina’s pregnant. Could the three of them form an unconventional family – and raise the baby together?

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen McMahon (Ireland) – Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage?

David thought so. But when his wife Mary Rose dies suddenly he has to think again. In reliving their twenty years together David sees that the ground beneath them had shifted and he simply hadn’t noticed. Or had chosen not to.

Figuring out who Mary Rose really was and the secrets that she kept – some of these hidden in plain sight – makes David wonder if he really knew her. Did he even know himself?

Consent by Annabel Lyon (Canada) – Saskia and Jenny are twins, alike in appearance only: Saskia has a single-minded focus on her studies, while Jenny is glamorous, thrill-seeking and capricious. Still, when Jenny is severely injured in an accident, Saskia puts her life on hold for her sister. Sara and Mattie are sisters with another difficult dynamic: Mattie needs almost full-time care, while Sara loves nothing more than fine wines, perfumes and expensive clothing, and leaves home at the first opportunity. But when their mother dies, Sara must move Mattie in with her. Gradually, Sara and Saskia learn that both their sisters’ lives, and indeed their own, have been altered by the devastating actions of one man…

Consent is a novel of sisters and their knotty relationships, of predatory men and sexual power, of retribution and the thrilling possibilities of revenge.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – (American) A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet – or what she terms ‘the portal’. Are we in hell? the people of the portal ask themselves. Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die? Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’

As real life and its stakes collide with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (Barbados) – In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers. For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result.

When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope – of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man. And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House is the story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Ghananian/American) – As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.

Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.

Womens Prize Fiction long listUnsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (British) – What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back? Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

Unsettled Ground is a heart-stopping novel of betrayal and resilience, love and survival. It is a portrait of life on the fringes of society that explores with dazzling emotional power how we can build our lives on broken foundations, and spin light from darkness.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Because Of You by Dawn French (British) – Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock . . . midnight.

The old millennium turns into the new.

In the same hospital, two very different women give birth to two very similar daughters.

Hope leaves with a beautiful baby girl. Anna leaves with empty arms.

Seventeen years later, the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge, and the truth starts rolling, terrible and deep, toward them all. The power of mother-love will be tested to its limits. Perhaps beyond . . .

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (British) – 1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness. But there will, inevitably, be a price to pay.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (British) – Piranesi lives in the House.

Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Womens Prize Fiction long list 2021The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig (British) – Intelligent, bookish and hard-working, Hannah is part of a generation that grew up in hope and has tried to escape life in Cornwall’s ugliest coastal town through a university degree, a professional career, and marriage to the privileged Jake. However, her life has gone disastrously wrong. Jake has left her for Eve and, reduced to near penury, she is desperate enough to agree to murder the brutal husband of Jinni, the rich woman she meets in the First Class carriage of the London to Penzance train, in return for having Jake killed.

However, when Hannah turns up at the remote Cornish house where Jinni’s husband is living intending to keep her promise, she meets a filthy, drunken, despairing man living in a house whose misery tells a very different story.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (Ireland) – When you leave Ireland aged 22 to spend your parents’ money, it’s called a gap year. When Ava leaves Ireland aged 22 to make her own money, she’s not sure what to call it, but it involves:

– a badly-paid job in Hong Kong, teaching English grammar to rich children;

– Julian, who likes to spend money on Ava and lets her move into his guest room;

– Edith, who Ava meets while Julian is out of town and actually listens to her when she talks;

– money, love, cynicism, unspoken feelings and unlikely connections.

Exciting times ensue.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (American) – In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her arranged marriage to join an ashram, took a hapless artist for a lover, rebelled against every social expectation of a good Indian woman – all with her young child in tow.

Years on, she is an old woman with a fading memory, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her. This is a poisoned love story. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter.

Burnt Sugar gradually untangles the knot of memory and myth that bind two women together, revealing the truth that lies beneath.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Luster by Raven Leilani (American) – Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up.

Then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young, black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling headfirst into Eric’s home and family.

Razor sharp, provocatively page-turning and surprisingly tender, Raven Leilani’s Luster is a painfully funny debut about what it means to be young now.

* * * * *

That’s it, a long list to look through, some familiar, others not. What looks tempting to you? Have you read any of these already that you’d recommend?

The judging panel will now whittle these 16 books down to a shortlist of 6 novels, announced on April 28th. The 25th winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 7th July.

Happy Reading!

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore at 100

Lies of Silence was the January read for the Brian Moore at 100 year long read along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, which I introduced and will link my reviews back to here. A political thriller, it was originally published in 1990 to much acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing to A.S. Byatt’s excellent novel Possession.

Northern Irish Literature Booker Prize shortlistedIt is the story of a disenchanted man, a man who reluctantly returned to Northern Ireland from London with his wife Moira, who was keen to return. Now he is the manager of a hotel, a job he doesn’t particularly like, having left his poetry aspirations far behind him, following in the footsteps of his father, a man he feels resentment towards.

Unsurprisingly, his personal life has become entangled and just as the unspoken issues simmering below this relationship are about to boil over, he and his wife are taken hostage in their own home, he to be used as a pawn in what unfolds as a complex, thought out plan.

In the midst of the initial drama Michael sees his neighbour, a retired bank manager leave with his dog for a walk, seeing in him the average, everyman and woman who just wants to get on with life without interference from “men in woolen masks”.

Watching him go off with his dog, Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his and Mr Harbinger’s birthplace, sick with a terrible illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustice of Ulster’s status quo. Angry, he stared across the room at the most dangerous victims of these lies, his youthful, ignorant, murderous, captors.

Under threat, as he moves towards doing what has been asked of him, he faces an excruciating moral dilemma, and a situation that spirals him into further confusion and deliberations over what the “right thing to do” is.

It’s something of a page turner, while not holding back on expressing the tensions and opinions of various characters in this complex, often not well understood political environment.

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Exile

There are also subtle hints to Moore’s own yearning for places beyond the hills of home, as seen in this passage, as he gets off the telephone from his American boss:

Brian Moore Lies of Silence Belfast City Northern Ireland

Cave Hill Mountain Overlooking Belfast City towards Belfast Lough

Dismissed from Keogh’s busy, money-breathing world, Dillon stood looking out at the mountain which reared up like a stage backdrop behind the city. Long ago, in school, daydreaming, he would look out of the classroom window and imagine himself in some aeroplane being lifted over that grey pig’s back of mountain to places far from here, to London, New York, Paris, great cities he had seen in films and photographs, cities far away from the dull constrictions of home.

It’s also clear that Moore was as keen on seeking revenge with his pen, as much as his characters do with whatever is at their disposal, his distance from the home country giving him a freedom and inclination to provoke, inform and stir the troubled pot, so to speak. In particular, the denouement.

Further Reading

You can read recent reviews here: Cathy at 746 Books, Ali at HeavenAli, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Kim at Reading Matters

February’s novel was Moore’s 1957 novel The Feast of Lupercal, whose pragonist is a 37 year-old teacher at a Catholic boarding school run by priests in Belfast during the 1950s.  I don’t have this one, though it sounds excellent according to these enticing reviews, which you can read here: Cathy at 746 Books, HeavenAli.

In March, they will be reading Fergus (1970). I will join in the reading in April with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). I hope more of you might be able to join in this next one, which is one of his more well-known and popular titles.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a bestseller in the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), a National Book Award (2016), longlisted for the Booker Prize and at least 12 other awards. It has been very widely read. I picked it up at a book sale recently and decided to read it during February for Black History Month (US).

What Was The Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the American South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War and by 1840 it had become part of the American vernacular.

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber

People referred to as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations” “safe houses” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

Many slaves headed for Canada because it offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.

Review

Fugitive Slave Acts 1793 bounty huntersCora is an African slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and within the first few pages we learn of her grandmother’s death while working in the fields and not long after this, her mother Mabel’s disappearance, a runaway.

When Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts – there was no one now to tell for sure.

The only thing Cora inherited was a small garden plot and she had to fight to retain it, as others had ideas. Her lack of protection also resulted in her being sent to live in a hut with fellow outcasts.

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Three weeks later she said yes.

The novel explores the difficult conditions the slaves live under, including the significant difference between slave masters who are brothers. When the running of the plantation changes and life becomes even more unbearable, Cora decides to make her attempt, no matter the consequences.

From the moment of their decision onward, the tension ramps up, as the whole time they are on the run, they are being pursued, in particular by one slave-catcher, who has turned Cora into a personal vendetta, on account of his not being able to find her mother.

No one knows what happens to Mabel and far from inspiring her daughter, Cora is driven by anger at having been left. And so they enter the underground railroad system.

The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built that thing had received their proper reward.

Colson writes of the underground railway, as if it is a physical entity, only this is a means of transporting people who are oppressed, vilified, maltreated and scorned by the mostly white population. While others travel by train above ground and see the beauty of a landscape, this route takes them into a damp, dark, unwelcoming labyrinth with no guarantee of safe passage.

At various stops, they enter new territory, sometimes staying a while, other times going into hiding, always fearful of capture.

“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before your final stop.”

It’s not an easy read and a sense of unease stays with the reader throughout. There are moments of horror, of confusion, flickers of hope, of disappointment, exhaustion, disgust. Perseverance. Belief.

He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.

She didn’t believe what he said about justice, but it was nice to hear him say it.

The she woke up the next morning and she felt better, and had to admit that she did believe it, maybe just a little.

I appreciated the novel and understand its popularity, I think my enjoyment of it was affected by the horror and also because I read a number of other excellent slave narratives in February by women, whose way of storytelling relies less on the horrors and violence and more on the varying perspectives of characters, stories that are thought provoking and have stayed with me like Toni Morrison’s brilliant A Mercy and Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union both of which I highly recommend.

 

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country opens with the thrilling escape of teenage Talia from a girl’s reform school in northern Colombia, pulling us into her story very quickly. Her escape is motivated by the desire to get home to her father who holds a plane ticket for her, a week hence, that will enable her to return to her birthplace, to her mother and two siblings whom she hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

Talia’s journey south threads throughout the narrative, like a serpent meandering towards its den. Confident in her ability to arrive at her destination, intuitively driven.

Colombian Literature Undocumented Refugee StoryThe story reverses and we learn how it came about that Elena and her children Nando and Karina are in America, while Mauro and Talia are in Colombia. How dreamer Mauro fell in love with contented Elena, in the market, their lives being played out on a small canvas until Mauro shared his dream and Elena facilitated it.

The dream becomes the nightmare of survival as their visas expire and they’re part of “the undocumented” moving from place to place in search of work until the day Mauro gets caught, and not long after swiftly deported. Elena becomes the sole bread winner for the family, leading to more heart-breaking events that unfold.

As I read their story, it held the echo of hundreds of couples, of families, split and fragmented by migration, exile, circumstance. This section is written in the slower form of a narrative summary, though equally compelling due to the feelings and questions it evokes in the reader as we read. And just as we begin to wonder where the action is, it shifts back to Mauro and we witness his tumultuous return to Elena’s mother Perla, who will raise his child, Talia.

Infinite Country Andean myths Culture MIt’s an interesting blend of narrative perspectives, the switch between Talia’s adventurous journey south and the backstory of how she came to be escaping to escape, including her parents story. Through Mauro and Talia we are also exposed to their cultural stories, the Andean myths of their people, of serpent, jaguar, condor and the one story that haunts Mauro, one he wished he’d never learned, that he will never tell.

Mauro appreciated that these stories offered explanations for his being, reminded him there was another land, a better one of divine logic wrapped inside this professed tierra de Colón, that he wasn’t pacing the earth blind as he often felt and Creation provided clues that made paths clearer, as simple as the blackbird song that announces oncoming rain and the whistles of the Andean sparrow that signal the clouds will soon part.

Near the end, it switches again to a second person “you” voice, and it’s Nando speaking to his sister Karina. For the reader, this is as abrupt as the deportation of the father, a seismic shift of sorts.

It switches again to the first person “I”, the quiet reassuring voice of Karina, and we learn it is she who has been telling us this story all along.

It’s a thought provoking story of one family that is reminiscent of so many, universal and yet particular to this one family, brilliantly showing the struggle not just to survive in a new country, but to survive leaving, to survive separation, to develop the strength required to hold steadfast to a dream and if not to the dream, to one’s family, who will change, evolve, split, fragment, become something other.

From an interview with Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire Patricia Engel Captures The Interior World of Immigration

You write at the end of the novel, “Maybe there is no nation or citizenry.” What do borders mean to you?

PE: I think something that has always sparked my curiosity, as somebody who loves animals and nature, is how we can watch endless documentaries marveling about the miracle of migration when animals do it and how they know how to cross other lands in pursuit of resources.

What doesn’t occur to us are the ways that the human species is a migratory species, which has ensured its own survival, literally, because of the instinct to migrate. Borders are ever-changing things, as we’ve seen; countries often change them, rename themselves, and cede parts of their borders to other countries.

Borders are man-made, designed to serve special interests, and really are not natural. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ways they fall short of what human instincts and human needs require.

About the Author, Patricia Engel

Infinite Country Undocumented ImmigrantPatricia Engel has written a number of award winning, internationally acclaimed novels, including The Veins of the Ocean, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris and Vida, for which she was the first woman to be awarded Colombia’s national prize in literature, the 2017 Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana. Her books have been translated into many languages, her short fiction widely published and her criticism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Catapult, and in numerous anthologies. She currently teaches creative writing at Miami University.

Patricia Engel, herself the daughter of Colombian immigrants and a dual citizen, gives voice to Mauro, Elena and their children – each one navigating a divided existence, weighing their allegiance to the past, the future, to one another, and to themselves. Rich with Bogotá urban life, steeped in Andean myth, and tense with the daily reality for the undocumented in America, Infinite Country is the story of two countries and one mixed-status family for whom every triumph is stitched with regret and every dream pursued bears the weight of a dream deferred.

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende

This was a short read and as the author herself says, it’s more of “an informal chat” than any other label one might put against it.

A Conversation With Isabelle Allende

The Soul of A Woman memoir feminism reviewIsabelle Allende looks back over her life from the viewpoint of her gender, as a woman and looks at how the family she was born into, and their circumstances contributed to her own growth and development and attitudes.

Her mother Panchita was abandoned by her husband in Peru with two toddlers and newborn (Isabel), forcing her to return to her family in Chile. It is this circumstance she ascribes her rebellion against male authority to.

A fear and darkness in childhood, a pre-verbal trauma and conscious frustration as she aged, that ensured she would do everything in her power not to inhabit that vulnerable space women so easily fall into.

An Epiphany in India

An Epiphany in India Isabel Allende Foundation

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Thwarted by her own passion(s) she marries a number of times, becomes obsessed with justice, develops a visceral reaction to male chauvinism and is so shocked by an experience she had in India, a random roadside breakdown event, that she creates a foundation for vulnerable girls, today run by her daughter in law.

At times the commentary seemed superficial, almost as if written too quickly, there were gaps, assertions without the facts, anecdotes, generalisations etc about women, men, feminism, the patriarchy, but then there were the silver linings, the moments of truth when she’d strike a chord that vibrated and made one pause.

On Ageing, Life in Later Years

Isabel Allende The Soul of A Woman MemoirBeing in the later years of her life, she also reflects on that era, on the post retirement years and her attitude towards them, how she sees that she has changed, what she is and isn’t prepared to compromise on.

It’s provocative, insightful and an invitation to join the conversation and the action, to continue the work towards empowerment of women on their own terms and not as defined by the other. An optimist who drives a hard bargain, she also is one who says yes to life, prepared to take risks and then manage the consequences.

Though it was a galley e-book and I shouldn’t quote from it, I end with thoughts inspired by her reading of Jampolsky on forgiveness, which she appears to follow as guidance in her own life to satisfy the soul of a woman.

More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and ourselves.

After which she asks “What kind of world do we want?”

Further Reading

Geographic Expeditions: An Epiphany In India, February 8, 2013 by Isabel Allende