Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish) – like Tove Jansson, Maria Turtschaninoff is from a Swedish speaking part of Finland.

A Utopian Island of Women

Maresi Finland YA WIT MonthRed Abbey is situated on the island Menos, run by women, a kind of educational refuge that has elements of sounding like a boarding school and a convent. On the mainland some are not even sure if it is myth or reality, but they send their girls there in hope that the rumours are trues. We learn that Maresi was sent there by her family during ‘Hunger Winter’ and that the abundance of food, the genuine care and education she is given makes it a place she adores.

There are many reasons why a girl might come to the island. Sometimes poor families from the coast lands send a daughter here because they can not provide for her. Sometimes a family notice that their daughter has a sharp and enquiring mind and want to give her the best education a woman can get. Sometimes sick and disabled girls come here because they know the sisters can give them the best possible care…Sometimes girls come as runaways… Girls who show a thirst for knowledge in cultures where women are not allowed to know or say anything. In these lands, rumour of the Abbey’s existence lives in women’s songs and and forbidden folk tales told only in whispers, away from enemy ears. Nobody talks openly about our island but most people have heard of it anyway.

The Red Abbey Maresi feminist fantasy YAThere are two maps at the front of the book, one of Red Abbey, a walled area showing various buildings, such as Novice House, Knowledge House, Body’s Spring, Temple of the Rose, named steps and courtyards and a map of the island drawn by ‘Sister 0 in the second year of the reign of our thirty-second mother, based on the original by ‘Garai of the Blood in the reign of First Mother’

As the novel opens a ship is sighted and the girls are joined by Jai, who becomes shadow to Maresi, it is clear she has been traumatised by an experience and continues to live in fear, believing that what she ran from will not relent until she is found.

Most of the first two thirds is made up of understanding their daily life, they are being educated both intellectually and develop a strong connection to nature. The community is able to survive and thrive due to their sustainable harvesting of a red dye from blood snails. Maresi loves nothing more than acquiring knowledge and spends every evening in Knowledge House reading the scrolls.

That evening I chose the ancient tales of the First Sisters. I have always loved reading about their journey to the island, their struggle to build Knowledge House and their survival in the first few years with nothing but fish and foraged wild fruits and berries as sustenance. Life on the island was difficult for the first few years. It did not get easier until some decades later, when they discovered the bloodsnail colony and the silver began to flow in.

Only women and girls are permitted on the island and when a threat seems imminent it requires the women to use all their knowledge and resources and it is as this happens that the girls begin to discover their unique talents and the courage to use them.

Sisterhood, Knowledge, Empowerment and True Courage

Bloodsnails Maresi Red Abbey

Photo by Alin Luna on Pexels.com

Described as a tale of sisterhood, survival and fighting against the odds, I chose this because it sounded like an empowering read for young women/adolescents and because it has been imagined and written by a woman from another culture/language, drawing on her storytelling tradition and experience.

I really enjoyed the story and characters and the community created on the island, it reminded me a little of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, who lives on an island, only she is in exile, so mostly alone, but it has that similar utopian feeling of the desire to create a nurturing environment where women live in harmony with nature and have access to education and knowledge, without the demands or agendas of men or the family dynamic and its expectations.

Maresi is the first in a trilogy, also described as feminist fantasy, the second book is Naondel and the the final Maresi Red Mantle.

Where Does the Inspiration Come From?

What was the inspiration behind the Red Abbey? And what kind of research did you undergo during the writing process? – from an interview by Bluebird Reviews 

It all started with a photograph exhibition.

I saw the exhibition many years before I began working on Maresi. It took place in Helsinki, and showcased photographs from Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with a 1000-year-old monastic community. The pictures were breathtakingly beautiful and the houses of the monasteries represented crumbling splendour. Many of them were perched on top of steep cliffs, like eagles’ nests. I walked around with my notebook, making notes and getting very inspired.

And also, angry.

Because for a thousand years, no woman has been allowed on the island. Even today only male pilgrims are able to set foot on the island. The women get to take a boat ride and view the monasteries from the sea. And I thought “How is it possible that there’s a place today, in Europe, where women aren’t allowed?” This thought was immediately followed by: “And what would happen if I turned it on its head and there was an island, and an Abbey, where only women and girls are allowed? But because it would be set in my fantasy world, there would be a concrete reason why men are not allowed.”

Can you tell us a bit about the mythology of the Mother, Maiden, and Crone? What’s the background story and where did the idea come from? – interview by Huriyah Quadri, The Selkie

As I created the Red Abbey for the first book, I knew the women and girls had to worship something – it’s an abbey, after all – but in this fantasy world, our religions don’t exist. So I looked further back in history, to what humans believed in before the three monotheistic religions became dominant, and found goddess-worshipping cultures. I researched them, stole the best bits and made my own concoction.

The Author, Maria Turtschaninoff

Teenage and Young Adult author, Maria Turtschaninoff was born in 1977 and lives in Finland. She is the author of many books about magical worlds and has been awarded the Swedish YLE Literature prize and has twice won the Society of Swedish Literature Prize. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao

translated (from Chinese) by Mike Fu.

Literature Worthy of Translation

荷西 Sanmao Stories of the Sahara Echo ChenUsually when I come across a new book that sounds like my kind of read, meaning it is of cross-cultural interest, where a character (or person) from one culture (preferably not one I’m familiar with) encounters another, I’ll find others who’ve read it to discern whether it’s for me or not.

As soon as I saw the cover of Stories From the Sahara, I was intrigued. A fascinating and popular Taiwanese woman author of many books and essays, living in the Sahara with her Spanish lover; why has only one person I follow read this and why are we only hearing about this mysterious travel writer in 2020?

I don’t know the answer to my question (I suspect publisher’s had their radar tuned elsewhere in the past and perhaps the Anglosphere/Sinosphere head butting that takes place in the political arena affected their vision); but August is WIT (Women in Translation) month, a movement that’s gaining traction and interest, the genre and languages of books translated/published is widening and thanks to Eleanor at The Monthly Booking I bought this engaging and unforgettable read.

Thanks Mike Fu, who read the book as a young man and has translated it into English, he is now translating her next book, of their adventures in the Canary Islands.

Who is Sanmao? Echo Chen? Chen Ping?

Sanmao 荷西 Stories of the Sahara

Sanmao & José, Al Aaiun, Sahara

In 1973, an independent young Chinese woman, born Chen Ping on 26 March 1943 left her family home in Taiwan, after a family tragedy, to travel to the Spanish Sahara with her friend José. They married in 1974. She had first lived in Spain in 1967 attending university in Madrid.

While in the Sahara she was inspired to write vignettes of her life there, they were published in Taiwan and China to great acclaim. The first volume debuted in May 1976.

Sanmao died on 4 January 1991, at the age of forty-seven. She published more than twenty books, mostly semi-autobiographical essays, selling over fifteen million copies.

In a beautiful, moving essay, commemorating what would have been Sanmao’s 77th year, her niece Jessica Chen, remembers her Auntie, sharing something of the unique soul she was and the words of her grandparents, speaking of their tender, beloved daughter who, “had simply gotten off the train of life sooner than we expected”.

Grandpa and Grandma always said she was a special child with a gift from God, and the richness of her interior life was off-limits to others—unless she chose to let you in herself. Writing was the window she opened to the outside world. The people who understood this would naturally discover a path to her heart; those who didn’t could only stand at the window and gaze in from afar.

What was Sanmao doing in the Sahara?

Spanish Sahara Stories of the Sahara Sanmao

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

One day Sanmao was absent-mindedly flipping through the pages of National Geographic when she came across a feature on the Sahara. It was from that moment that she developed an obsession not just to visit, but to live there.

I only read it through once. I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life.

Arriving in Spain, she learned that 280,000 square metres of the Sahara at the time were designated Spanish territory. Her desire to go there deepened, torturing her with longing.

José went ahead of her, securing a job at a phosphate mine, found them a home, allowing her to fulfill that soul-whispered desire.

Book Review – Stories of the Sahara

Stories of the Sahara Sanmao Portrait I absolutely loved Stories of the Sahara, in its entirety and it will likely be my favourite nonfiction title of the year. It is so refreshing to read a travelogue by a woman from another culture and discover a writer beloved of Chinese and Taiwanese readers for decades.

I almost couldn’t get over how tough it was during that initial period and thought often about heading back to Europe. Amid that endless stretch of sand, it was so hot during the day that water could scald your hands, while night was so cold that you had to wear a heavy coat. Many times I asked myself why I insisted on staying here. Why had I wanted to come to this long-forgotten corner of the world all by myself? As there were no answers to these questions, I continued to settle in, one day at a time.

I hadn’t expected it to be so funny, so many of her observations and the things requested of her made me laugh out loud. It’s unlike any other travel memoir I’ve read; here is a sensitive, empathetic woman, bringing a completely fresh set of eyes, to a place few of us will ever have dreamed of living.

At her first glimpse of the periphery of Al Aaiún, as they walk from the airport towards her new home, she is in awe seeing tents, bungalows, camels and herds of goats in the sand.

It was like walking into a fantasy, a whole new world.

The wind carried aloft the laughter of little girls playing a game. An indescribable vitality and joy can be found wherever humans exist. Even this barren and impoverished  backwater was teeming with life, not a struggle for survival. For the residents of the desert, their births and deaths and everything in between were all part of a natural order. Looking out at the smoke ascending to the sky from their homes, I felt that these people were almost elegant in their serenity. Living carefree, in my understanding, is what a civilised spirit is all about.

The combination of her naivete, determination and feminism – her refusal to be stopped from doing what she wants – create some of the most hilarious and alarming moments. Her kindness and frankness gain her entry inside the culture and landscape, providing insights few are capable of accessing. People trusted her – yes they often took advantage of her – but she was a willing participant. They provided rich literary material, clearly!

This is one of those books I don’t wish to share much of what is inside, I prefer to say, “Read this, it’s so good!”

I was intrigued by the obsession she had to go and live in the Sahara, I was delighted that she lived at the wrong end of the street in among the permanent locals, I loved her sense of adventure, how she overcame boredom in searing heat, getting in the car and driving for hours in the desert. But it is her frankness, her empathy and sense of humour that  make it an unforgettable read.

Reading Women in Translation

I picked this up to read for #WITMonth and it’s one of the best, that combination of travel to a new place, meeting local people through the perception of someone from a culture other than our own, priceless.

“Travel with an open heart, then bring back home the feelings that you find.” Sanmao

Further Reading

Colombia University: Interview with translator: Mike Fu

Words Without Borders, Essay by Jessica Chen (niece) March 2020: Sanmao’s Footprints: Remembering the Writer on Her 77th Birthday

New York Times Obituary: Overlooked No More: Sanmao, ‘Wandering Writer’ Who Found Her Voice in the Desert

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

translated by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s debut novel was first published in Italy in 1991, translated into English in 2016. It became a literary sensation and earned its author the Elsa Morante prize, one of Italy’s most prestigious awards for literature.

A Drowning at Sea

Naples Italy Elena Ferrante Troubling Love

Photo by Bekir Du00f6nmez on Pexels.com

Troubling.

A daughter Delia is concerned after a telephone call from her mother. Following her subsequent disappearance and death, she returns to her mother’s empty apartment, trying to retrace her steps to understand what had been going on in her life that lead to her abrupt departure. Her frustration with her mother is apparent from the first page.

Her sociability irritated me: she went shopping and got to know shopkeepers with whom in ten years I had exchanged no more than a word or two; she took walks through the city with casual acquaintances; she became a friend of my friends, and told them stories of her life, the same ones over and over. I, with her, could only be self-contained and insincere.

Strange things happen, some of which a neighbour helps explain, a woman who opens her door ajar at the slightest noise, thus aware of her mother’s visitors. Yet Delia doesn’t act rationally herself, she’s not the most reliable narrator and there is a sense of confusion and danger as we follow her reckless pursuit of clues across town and memories of the past emerge.

The Abusive, Possessive Artist

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month Father Artist

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Nearly every past relationship recounted is troubled, she and her sisters lived in fear of their father all their childhood, often watching him beat their mother in fits of irrational jealousy, blaming her should any man glance her way, yet he’d spent his days painting images of her naked body on canvas, selling them to anyone who’d pay.

During adolescence I saw those figures of a woman leave the house in the hands of strangers who were not sparing in their crude comments. I didn’t understand and perhaps there was nothing to understand. How was it possible that my father could hand over, to vulgar men, bold and seductive versions of that body which if necessary he would defend with a murderous rage?

Amalia spent her marriage suppressing her natural gaiety and charm, her daughter learned of the danger, developing an instinct for it.

When we went to the movies without him, my mother didn’t respect any of the rules that he imposed: she looked around freely, she laughed as she wasn’t supposed to laugh, and chatted with people she didn’t know. So when my father was there I couldn’t follow the story of the film. I glanced around furtively in the darkness to exercise, in my turn, control over Amalia, to anticipate the discovery of her secrets, to keep him, too, from discovering her guilt.

Much of the novel is narrated through the gaze of others, adding to the awkward, vulnerable, exposed feeling of the women. It’s a narrative of deep unease, both in the present day and in its long reach back to the first encounter between the young Amalia and her future possessive husband.

A Free Spirit Escapes

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month

Her mother couldn’t be contained, she was an enigma to Delia, raised in that fearsome household, exposed to it from a very young age, conditioned by it, fear and judgement had become a natural part of her psyche.

I realised I was summarising a woman without prudence and without the virtue of fear. I had memories of it. Even when my father raised his fists and struck her, to shape her like a stone or a log, she widened her eyes not in fear but in astonishment.

Her mother used to sew, her world was measurements and fittings and bodies. Garments play a part in the story, again, a mystery to Delia to unravel and try to understand, as if they too might be a clue to her disappearance.

For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure.

As she follows random leads, trying to reconstruct her mother’s movements, she revisits scenes from childhood, drawing a picture of her mother, a vivacious woman full of life, spilling outside the restrained bindings of an oppressive marriage and tries to reconstruct the latter part of her life that she’d lived out separate from her family, though still perceived by her daughter and ex-husband as being in secret.

Maybe in the end all that mattered of these two days without respite was the transplanting of the story from one head to the other, like a healthy organ that my mother had given up to me out of affection.

I was reminded of the experience of reading The Days of Abandonment, there is an intensity to the narrative, its visceral descriptions, evoking reactions, everything feels up close and confronting, we are passengers in the seat of a mind slightly out of control, where new thoughts send the protagonist out in pursuit of the elusive and we must accompany her, reassured by moments of clarity and spun out by acts of recklessness.

Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults WIT MonthThat’s Ferrante.

She has a new book due out in September The Lying Life of Adults said to have the same additive, page-turning qualities of her earlier novels.

Ferrante follows Giovanna’s life from age 12 to 16, charting her development from the sweet girl who adores her parents to a sulking, aggressive teenager who finds pleasure in self-abasement and making those around her uncomfortable. The premise is a fertile one for the author, an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions.

Kathryn Bromwich The Guardian

Further Reading

My Review of other Elena Ferrante titles:

The Days of Abandonment

My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child

Frantamuglia (non-fiction)

The Guardian: Review: The Lying Life of Adults – a rebel rich girl comes of age by Kathryn Bromwich – Italians who queued up into the night for the reclusive writer’s new tale of painful adolescence won’t be disappointed

The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

translated by David Ball, Nicole Ball

An Unexpected Trans-Siberian Railway Trip

le canapé rouge the red sofa michèle Lesbre

A French novella that I read in an afternoon, we accompany our Parisian protagonist Anne, on a train journey towards Lake Baikal, in Southern Siberia, a journey she makes on a local train, having spontaneously decided to find out why her friend Gyl is no longer responding to her letters.

For the first six months he had written often, telling me he had time to go fishing for omul in the lake and make kites for children.
And then, silence.

Once on the train and it’s a long journey, she has time to think and recall their friendship, they were lovers many years ago and while she holds no flame for him, the journey allows her to reflect on the highs and lows of their union.

I knew that the return trip is the real journey, when it floods the days that follow, so much so that it creates the prolonged sensation of one time getting lost in another, of one space losing itself in another. Images are superimposed on one another – a secret alchemy, a depth of field in which our shadows seem more real than ourselves. That is where the truth of the voyage lies.

Get To Know Your Neighbour

What she does spend time thinking of, is her recent past and another spontaneous decision, to knock on the door of a neighbour whom she has never seen, an elderly woman.

I had never run into her in the lobby of the building, not on the stairs. I knew all the other people who lived there, or at least their names and faces, but Clémence Barrot remained a mystery. No sounds would ever reach me when I walked by her door, and if I asked questions about her, all I got were laconic answers and knowing looks…A character!

The door is opened by a young girl and peering inside she sees the older woman sitting on a red sofa by a window. As an excuse for her curiosity she mentions there might be noise as she has people coming for dinner that evening. The woman asks her a favour in return for the anticipated inconvenience.

With a big smile, she retorted that she would rather we proceeded differently: for all past dinners, for this one and the next ones, she would only ask in exchange that I occasionally read to her a little, if I had the time.

Passionate French Women Who Faced Death Unflinchingly

And so we meet some bold French female heroines of the past, sadly a number of whom for their feminist inclinations in the wrong era, lose their lives at the guillotine.

“Tell me about that gutsy girl again,” Clémence Barrot would sometimes ask about Marion de Faouët and her army of brigands. She had, just as I did, a real affection for that child who had not grown up to become a lady’s companion despite all the efforts of the Jaffré sisters. No, she became a leader of men instead, an avenger of Brittany which had been starved during the 1740’s.

A wild beauty, faithful to her village, her loves and her ideals, Marion had been imprisoned several times before dying on the gallows at the age of thirty-eight.

While these stream of consciousness thoughts pass through her mind, various locals enter and exit the train. She is happy to be immersed in the languages of the area and in two books she has brought with her, Dostoevsky’s War and Peace and a book by the philosopher Jankélévitch.

Travel To Exotic Destinations Through Story

le canapé rouge the red sofa Michèle Lesbre WIT Month

Becoming particularly interested in one man whom she can’t communicate with – Igor – she imagines things about him from the little she observes and seeks him out more than one time when he disappears.

I had just read ‘There are encounters with people completely unknown to us who trigger our interest at first sight, suddenly, before a word has even been said…”

It’s an engaging read considering not much happens, but there is just the right mix of action and reflection and indeed, by the end a build up to a couple of dramas and quiet resolution.

I really enjoyed the read and was surprised at how captivated I was by the journey. I do love long train journey’s and hers was such an indulgent whim, that the suspension of what she will encounter is enough to keep the reader interested, and the relationship with her elderly neighbour provides a brilliant counterpoint and empathic adjunct, becoming the more significant event to the ‘thousands of miles’ distraction.

N.B. This was one of the many Seagull Books offered weekly to readers during the period of confinement.

Further Reading

Reviewed by Rough Ghosts 

Seagull Books: More of their extensive collection of titles by Women In Translation

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada tr. Chris Andrews

Evangalising Across the Argentinian Countryside

A reverend and his teenage daughter break down in the middle of nowhere on a steaming hot dry day, after he ignores her advice to get the problem checked before they left the last town (his home town). A visit that caused her to feel both sorry for  her father.

But her sympathy didn’t last. At least he could go back to places full of memories…Leni had no lost paradise to visit. Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty.  Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of his car.

Leni, now 16, hasn’t seen her mother since the Reverend dumped his wife and her suitcase on one of their road trips.

This happened almost ten years ago. The details of her mother’s face have faded from Leni’s memory, but not the shape of her body: tall, slim, elegant. When she looks at herself in the mirror, she feels that she has inherited her bearing. At first she believed it was just wishful thinking, a desire to resemble her. But since becoming a woman, she has caught her father, more than once, looking at her with a blend of fascination and contempt, the way you might look at someone who stirs up a mixture of good and bad memories.

The Lone Garagist

The Wind That Lays Waste Selva Almada

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A truckdriver tows them to ‘the gringo Brauer’s‘ garage, a man raising his teenage son Tapioca alone, the boy abandoned there by his mother when he was 8 years old.

Tapioca’s memories of his mother are vague too. After she left him, he had to get used to his new home. What interested him most was the heap of old cars. The dogs and that mechanical cemetery were a comfort in the first weeks while he was adjusting. He would spend all day among the car bodies: he played at driving them, with three or four dogs as co-pilots. The Gringo left him to it, and approached the boy gradually, as if taming a wild animal.

The father hadn’t finished school himself, his son could read, write and do sums so didn’t see why the boy needed to keep up with it. He decided Tapioca could learn by working and observing nature.

It might not be scientific, but nature and hard work would teach the kid how to be a good person.

Seeing the Light

Storm Thunder Wasteland

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

The Reverend sees good in the boy and sets his righteous missionary sights on him. Leni sees what’s happening but doesn’t intervene.

Leni had conflicting feelings: she admired the Reverend deeply but disapproved of almost everything her father did. As if her were two different people. Earlier, she had told him to leave Tapioca alone, but if she had joined them on the porch now, she too would have been captivated by his words.

Brauer doesn’t appreciate the Reverend putting ideas in his son’s head, the tension mounts and none of them know yet that there’s a storm coming.

It’s a slow build-up, getting to know the characters, two men set in their ways, with children who rarely question their authority. They are used to being in charge. It’s a short, tense, reflective novella of these two unorthodox families whose lives intersect and cause a disruption, just as the storm breaks a long period of dry.

Berji Kristen: Tales From the Garbage Hills by Latife Tekin (1993)

translated by Ruth Christie, Saliha Paker

“One winter night, on a hill where the huge refuse bins came daily and dumped the city’s waste, eight shelters were set up by lantern-light near the garbage heaps.”

Berji Kristen Tales from the Garbage HIlls Latife Tekin Turkish LitThe opening sentence introduces us to the birth of a poverty-stricken community, one that will rise up despite numerous efforts to destroy it. As more displaced people hear of them, it continues to reassemble, grow, and become occupied by the marginalised, who do what they can to get ahead.

Mattresses  were unrolled and kilim-rugs spread on the earthen floors.  The damp walls were hung with  faded pictures and brushes with their blue bead  good-luck charms, cradles were slung from the roofs and a chimney pipe was knocked through the sidewall of every hut.

It’s a story of impoverishment, perseverance and the survival of the poorest. Every step forward encounters a knock back, an obstacle to overcome. Toxic factories employ them, their ailments dealt with in bribes, even their love lives are dictated by the relative positions they occupy in the unconventional heirarchy of the community.

The workers named the factories after their effects, some made the lungs collapse, some shrivelled the eye, some caused deafness, some made a woman barren. Their proverb for marriage between equals was ‘A bride with dust in her lungs to the brave lad with lead in his blood.’ The saying gained ground when one after another the young car battery workers married girls from the linen factory.

Berji Kristen Latife Tekin WIT Month

After winning the battle of constant demolition and renaming it ‘Battle Hill’, two official looking men replace their sign with a blue plaque inscribed ‘Flower Hill’.

After the renaming, people heard the demolition had stopped and came to the Hill in their hundreds, deceived by the charm of its name.

Rumour and gossip fuel their perceptions and without worldly knowledge they speculate; theories on events pass from one person to another, changing and evolving into a level of understanding they can accept.

One night yellow pamphlets are stealthily left at their doors, by morning they are strewn everywhere, caught in branches, stuck under their doors. They couldn’t understand why the workers would leave them and others wondered why they could not speak up instead of writing and why they’d left them in the dead of night.

Flower Hill Folk!

Support the strike!

Individuals rise and fall in power, characters referred to by occupation or memorable anecdote, new creatures arrive like ‘The Regular Worker’ spawning the song ‘Work Faster’ and ‘Poet Teacher’ writes about scavenger birds and his pupils.

Latife Tekin Turkish Author Tales From the Garbage Hills

Author, Latife Tekin

A lyrical voice is given of a metaphorical nature to the deprived, who have memories of villages of old, of fleeing, of different times. Latife Tekin “gives expression not only to their way of life but also to their outlook on life, perception of reality, sense of humour and dreams.”

It is told in such an engaging style, it reads as if it is narrated aloud, though it is neither fairy tale nor fantasy, it is quite unlike anything I’ve read before, the story and the voice, a depiction of the creation and development of an aspiring community of marginalised people.

Assuming the position of a detached but devoted narrator rather than a patronising intellectual onlooker, Tekin has reconstructed the dreams and realities of sqatterland in specific detail and with a uniquely metaphoric use of the language, without overlooking the humorous attitudes, ironic perception and emotional vitality of the community amid the filth and poverty of its living conditions. Saliha Paker, Introduction

Further Reading

Article: Contemporary Turkish Women Writers in English Translation by Dr. Roberta Micallef

Review: Bosphorous Review of Books reviews Berji Kristen by Luke Frostick

My Reviews of Books by Turkish Women Authors

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü tr. Elizabeth Maslen

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Honour by Elif Shafak

The Happiness of Blonde People by Ekif Shafak

 

The Woman From Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (2010)

translated by Kay Heikkinen.

Radwa Ashour

Radwa Ashour Woman from Tantoura Granada WITMonth

Radwa Ashour (1946 – 2014) was a highly acclaimed Egyptian writer and scholar who after studying a BA and MA in Comparative Literature in Cairo, went on to do a PhD in the US in African-American Literature.

As a university student in her native Cairo in the early 1970s, says Ashour, she’d found no one who considered writers in the African diaspora worthy of study. But in 1973, a joyfully-cultivated friendship with Shirley Graham Du Bois ­ world traveler, litterateur, and widow of W.E.B.du Bois­ led Ashour to UMass. Madame Du Bois, as the école-educated Ashour still calls her late liaison to Amherst, was living in Cairo at the time, and pointed the young Egyptian toward the then-infant Afro-American Studies department here.

Her interest in African-American literature was due to her view that “works on oppression and the overcoming of oppression speak deeply to readers in the Arab world.” She was passionate about social justice, evident in her writing, which sought to personalise the lives and conditions of marginalised groups.

Throughout her career she wrote more than fifteen works of fiction, memoir and criticism, including the novels Granada and Spectres.

The Woman From Tantoura

Radwa Ashour Tantoura WITMonthThe more I read, the more this novel got its hooks into me. After a while, a pattern begins to emerge, one that is universal. To find a place where one can live authentically, and be at home.

Because of the initial setting, a fishing village in Tantoura, Palestine, in 1948 – the year of ‘The Nakba‘ I expected it was going to be traumatic, it’s the part we don’t wish to linger in, to be witness to the horrific expulsion of families from their homes, of the disappearance of sons and fathers, the rest either becoming refugees in their own country or fleeing to find refuge elsewhere.

Even if we know it can’t begin well, sometimes, we need to read through, to follow the life of a thirteen year old girl into womanhood, in the hope that we see her find solace, to have empathy for her worry and anxiety for her own children and husband after all she has witnessed.

The story begins with Ruqaya standing on the seashore, seeing a young man come out of the sea as if he were of it, as if the waves released him on to land. She is mesmerised. The man will become her fiance, though they will never marry. It is the end of her childhood, the end of blissful days on that shoreline, though memories and the scent of it will stay with her forever, through all the moves that follow. And the key to the old house.

Looking for a Place to Call Home

Key Tantoura Palestine Radwa Ashour

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Later on I would learn that most of the women of the camp carried the keys to their houses, just as my mother did. Some would show them to me as they told me about the villages they came from, and sometimes I would glimpse the end of the cord around their necks, even if I didn’t see the key.

The novel is narrated by her 70-year-old self, pushed into writing down and describing the many experiences and turning points in her life, by her middle son.

It’s not only the story I’m interested in, I’m after the voice, because I know its value and I want others to have the chance to hear it.

A reluctant narrator, the timeline moves back and forth,  less a chronology events than a response to emotions that arise that provoke the memory. It’s a recollection of a life lived in the wake of tragedy, of determination and survival, of not forgetting, maintaining a connection to a culture and values as best one can.

There was no acceptable or reasonable answer for the question for “why?” however much it rose up, loud and insistent.  I did not ask “why”. I mean I didn’t ask the word, and perhaps  I was not conscious that it was there, echoing in my breast morning and evening and throughout the day and night. I didn’t say a thing; I fortified myself in silence.

Tantoura Palestine Radwa AshourWhile her mother uses imagination to create a vision of what happened and where the missing are, Ruqayya’s advances then retreats, as the present awakens the past, rarely does she dwell in an idealised future.

Am I really telling the story of my life or am I leaping away? Can a person tell the story of his life, can he summon up all its details? It might be more like descending into a mine in the belly of the earth, a mine that must be dug first before anyone can go down into it.Is any individual, however strong or energetic, capable of digging a mine with their own two hands?

Seeking Refuge

To see them seek refuge in another country, where a similar tragedy can happen, one understands what it must feel like to feel that no place is safe, and then when she finds a ‘safe place’ with her high achieving son, the culture shock is too much to bear, bringing to mind the memoir of the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said’s Out of Place.

Bird of Paradise Radwa Ashour TantouraThere is no place that quite replaces the childhood environment and home, except perhaps to create one’s own family, and this Raqayya will do, with her son’s and the daughter, a girl Maryam her husband brings home one day from the hospital, adopting her as their own. And in growing things, not the almond tree or the olives,  but flowers, a thing of beauty, the damask rose, the bird of paradise.

I found similarities in reading this novel, to the feeling evoked in reading Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, her constant search too, for the place where she could be herself, though her search was all the more elusive and complex, there being no place or people who accepted her rootlessness, her mixed blood, something that the clannishness of many ‘peoples’ reject.

“In Egypt, we have a flag, an airline of our own, we are an independent country,” she said. “But there is this feeling we are not free to be who we are in the new world order.” I am always conscious I’m a person from the Third World. I’m an Egyptian, an Arab, and an African all in one. Also, I’m a woman. I know to be all these things is to be particularly conscious of constraint.” Radwa Ashour

The Woman From Tantoura is my first read for #WITMonth, reading Women in Translation.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Inspiration in A Title

The book title ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ is a line written by the novelist Richard Wright (1908-1960) who wrote about the plight of being African-American, most notably in his novel Native Son (1940) and autobiography Black Boy (1945). It provides the opening to this book. A migrant from Mississippi, he set out on his journey in 1927 for Chicago.

“I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom”

Isabel Wilkerson is an American journalist and the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Both her parents were part of the migration North, as were many in the neighbourhood where she grew up. As a journalist she heard many stories of similar journeys and began to join the dots and see the bigger picture, which lead to the premise of this book.

Non-Fiction Personal Narrative

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow* Southern states of America, beginning after WW1 in 1915 continuing until the 1970’s, a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old.

Who or what is Jim Crow?

Jim Crow is an adjective used to describe a set of laws that southern states devised regulating every aspect of black people’s lives, solidifying the southern caste system, prohibiting even the most casual and incidental contact between the races. They would come to be known as the Jim Crow laws, though it is unknown who precisely Jim Crow was or if anyone by that name even existed.

One Woman’s Personal Journey to Accumulate & Document History

After fifteen years of research, studying many reports and papers and archives and conducting hundreds of interviews and journeys, Isabel Wilkerson decided to focus the narrative of this great flux of humanity, choosing three people who left over three decades, for different destinations. Their stories provide specific and heart felt accounts of their journey’s and the life they created.

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become the biggest under-reported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was underway.

The result of that research is this book documenting the experiences of those who are representative of the larger whole, essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, the Midwest and the West, from 1915, World War I, until 1970 when the South began truly to change.

What binds these stories together was the back-to-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

A Historical Study

Isabel Wilkerson Caste The Warmth of Other Suns Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson, Author

Intertwined with these personal narratives, Wilkerson shares historical facts, bringing together a history of the struggle of a vast group of American citizens who left their homes, their ancestral roots and memories for another part of the country where they hoped to find freedom and be treated as equals.

Though they would find opportunity, the search for equality would be somewhat illusory, the oppression taking a different form, the discrimination more clandestine, eventually erupting into the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Three People from the South, Three Decades, Three Destinations

Of the three whose lives unfold in this gripping narrative, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney would leave first in the 1930’s and ultimately end up in Chicago; George Swanson Starling left in the 1940’s to live in New York and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster departed in the 1950’s headed for California.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney

We meet Ida Mae in her hometown of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1937, the wife of a sharecropper, working the land of a planter picking cotton. They were a young couple who worked hard and stayed out of trouble, who decide to leave after witnessing the terrible beating of a cousin, in a case of mistaken identity. Their vulnerability to false accusation was a catalyst to their decision to leave. The North was facing a labour shortage and actively recruiting workers from the South.

Oftentimes, just to go away, is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put. John Dollard, Yale Scholar

Ida Mae and her husband struggled initially to find work, reminding me of the many who waited, Bernice McFadden’s Harlan raised by his grandmother while his parents sought their fortunes in the North and in Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes and his mother waited for his father to send for them.

Competing with other immigrant groups, the increased cost of living, raising a family, they persevered in continual determination to keep bettering their situation.

She was the matriarch of her family. She was one of the wisest and most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life. Doing this book changed me in so many ways. She had a way of – a kind of Zen perspective, if you can say – if you can imagine it, of accepting what was and recognizing what she couldn’t change, and moving on and not living in the past. And she was beloved by everyone who knew her.

 

George Swanson Starling

Photo by julie aagaard on Pexels.com

George held aspirations to further his education, doing well in school, but there was pressure on him to work in the orange groves like everyone else. He made a mistake that altered the course of his life, though not his underlying essence and ambition. Working in the fruit groves using his intelligence and ability to bring people together to collectively try and improve their wage, made his existence dangerous accelerating the need for him to leave.

Jim Crow had a way of turning everyone against one another, not just white against black or landed against lowly, but poor against poorer and black against black for an extra scrap of privilege. George Starling left all he knew because he would have died if he had stayed.

He would leave Eustis, the interior citrus belt of Florida and take the twenty-three hour train ride up the Atlantic coast to New York alone, not knowing when he’d be able to send for his wife Inez. That set something of a precedent for their relationship, though it was a wound that went back further than her marriage, for ironically George would spend his working life away from home, riding the rails up and down the East Coast as a railway attendant.

Robert Pershing Foster 

Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

Robert was the youngest son in a family of high achievers from Monroe, Louisiana, his brother Madison a doctor, encouraged him to go into partnership, but Robert had other aspirations.

The only way that someone as proud and particular as Pershing could survive in the time and place he was in was to put his mind somewhere else. He grew up watching his parents exercise exquisite control over the few things they were permitted to preside over in life.

Through marriage and his profession he aimed higher and further than most and had high expectations of himself and others in consequence. A proud man, he drove his way to California in his Buick Roadmaster, taking a circuitous route to Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican border, satisfying his craving for adventure and for doing what he did in grandiose style. Unsure whether he could make it in Los Angeles, he drove to Oakland before making his decision.

It was looking like Monroe, which was perhaps one reason why people from Monroe had gravitated there in the first place and made a colony for themselves. It was precisely what Robert was looking to get away from. It was not living up to his glamour vision of California. It felt as if he had driven all this way for the same place he had left. Los Angeles had seduced him. Oakland didn’t stand a chance.

The Structure, The Decades, The Fear, The Exodus, The Dream, The Reality

Though they leave in different decades, the narrative has been beautifully orchestrated to allow their stories to be read concurrently, so we learn about their circumstances in the South first, discover their personal motivations for leaving, their plans and then their departure. Each new section tells their three stories.

It’s a brilliant way to join the stories and see the mass migration for the terrifying, courageous yet exciting act it was. The departures, no matter which decade they were in, all carry within them an undercurrent of fear of the unknown, and it is with some relief that I recall I’m reading about people who will survive into old age, the danger surrounding their life-changing departure palpable nevertheless.

The stories are rich with detail and anecdote, the historical references are eye-opening and important to acknowledge. It is an excellent book, a thorough examination of the movement of people out of oppression towards equality, rights that continue to be fought for today. It’s impossible to do justice to the book, both it’s humanity and history, it’s an astounding accomplishment and well worth reading.

We cannot escape our origins, however hard we might try, those origins contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is published on August 11.

Have you read any novels that incorporate a character making this migration out of the South? Do let me know in the comments below.

Further Reading

TED Talk by Isabel Wilkerson: The Great Migration and the Power of A Single Decision

New York Times: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is an instant American Classic about our abiding sin by Dwight Garner

Chicago Tribune: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is is about the strict lines that keep us apart — lines that are more than race or class

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1951)

The Sea as Home

Exactly five years ago I came across and read Rachel Carson’s debut novel Under the Sea-Wind (1941), not the book she is most well-known for, that is Silent Spring (1962) but her own personal favourite and definitely one of mine.

It was the first in her Sea Trilogy a beautifully told narrative account of three creatures that live within the ecosystem of the sea, a female sanderling named Silverbar, Scomber the mackerel and Anguilla the migrating eel.

The Sea as Mother

The Sea Around Us Rachel CarsonIn The Sea Around Us Carson makes the sea her subject, addressing it in three parts, Mother Sea, The Restless Sea and Man and the Sea About Him.

Reading nonfiction books on marine biology or ecology isn’t something I would normally choose to do on holiday but Rachel Carson writes narrative nonfiction that turns science and observation into a thrilling and insightful pageturner. And this second book in the trilogy, a New York Times bestseller, is just as engaging as her debut was. I loved it.

Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention. Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of  not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world. Through sharing Carson’s research, we become acutely sensitive to the interdependence of life. – Ann Zwinger , Introduction

The Sea as Teacher

Though published in 1951, therefore knowing our understanding of marine ecology has continued to develop, most of us likely won’t have read or studied too deeply about the sea, in fact, many remain (with good reason) in fear of it – not understanding her mood changes, dangerous rips, turbulent surf and the menacing creatures that live within her depths.

The Sea Rachel Carson Marine Ecology

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Here a casual reader with an interest in nature writing of a literary kind will learn and absorb much about the sea, the ocean, her characteristics, behaviours, secrets and influences with little effort, such is her mastery of narrating a serious subject in an engaging and memorable way.

Talking about the seasons, we discover the sea too experiences events that herald those forthcoming changes.

The lifelessness, the hopelessness, the despair of the winter sea are an illusion. Everywhere are the assurances that the cycle has come to the full, containing the means of its own renewal. There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness of the winter sea, in the chilling of the water, which must, before many weeks, become so heavy that it will plunge downward, precipitating the overturn that is the first act in the drama of spring.

From Sea to Land, and the Moon Question

Taking us back to the beginning we learn how the sea might have come about, reading of a once believed theory that the moon may have been a child of the earth, born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off and hurled into space, leaving a scar or depression on the surface of the globe, that now holds the Pacific Ocean.

Whether or not that is true, we do know the moon affects the tides and cycles of many animals. Where the Moon came from continues to be debated today.

We familiarise with the evolution of tides, the moon effect, the significant evaporation of the Mediterranean which makes it excessively salty and more dense and learn of the rush of a current from the Atlantic that replaces it, lighter water that pours past Gibraltar in surface streams of great strength.

jellyfish sea life Rachel Carson

Photo by Artem Mizyuk on Pexels.com

It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile – warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream  in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water.

Providing a succinct and easily readable account, we begin to understand the complexity of ocean currents, of streams within oceans, their discovery by sailors and captains, the reluctance of men to share their navigation maps, the effect on human migrations.

We read how interconnected everything is, the winds, waves, the currents, the deep abyss, the tendencies of schools of fish, explanations for their sudden disappearance and the effect on our livelihoods; the appearance of new land formations via underwater volcanoes, creating islands that emerge from the sea, we hear of airborne spiders riding high for miles, how life emerges on a protuberance from the sea and how easily it can be wiped out again.

It closes with the foretelling of the climate change we are already in, and the many that have been.

It is almost certainly true we are in the warming-up stage following the Pleistocene glaciation – that the world’s climate over the next thousands of years, will grow considerably warmer before beginning a downward swing into another Ice Age.

Rachel Carson had an incredible gift of writing the scientific complexity of the ecosystem of the sea and her creatures, sharing what was known at the time and hints of that which wasn’t in a captivating way, born of a great passion and love of the sea, the shore and all that lived within or depended on it.

Ideal Lake or Seaside Reading

Rachel Carson The Sea Marine Ecology

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist (1907-1964)

I read this on holiday sitting next to a lake, watching on a micro level those same factors that move a body of water, that give it life, occasionally seeing the little fish who’ve made a home in it, the plant life in the water and beside it. And we humans, making it our playground for the summer. In much appreciation and gratitude.

“The shore is an ancient world. I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” Rachel Carson

Further Reading

New Yorker: The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson

Brain Pickings: Why the Sea is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum 

Buy a Copy of The Sea Around Us