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.

Brian Moore Read Along 2021

#BrianMoore100

During 2021, Cathy at 746Books, the team at Brian Moore at 100 and Northern Irish author, playwright Jan Carson (whose latest book The Last Resort will be published on April 1st) join forces to celebrate the work of one of Northern Ireland’s enigmatic writers and wanderers, Brian Moore, in his centenary year.

Northern Irish Connections

I have a personal interest in Northern Ireland, having discovered in my twenties that my biological father (unknown to me at the time) was born there. I spent some years doing my own private research that resulted in discovering a whole line of family, so reading a variety of literature from this part of Ireland is a form of distant connection for me.

When I looked at what Cathy was proposing reading for the year (see the list below), I looked up Brian Moore was interested in what I learned and managed to source about 5 of the suggested 12 novels. Another of the reasons I decided to participate, was the intrigue and recognition evoked by a statement Moore wrote shortly before his death:

“There are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home. I am one of those wanderers.”

Brian Moore, Irish Author (1921 – 1999)

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish

The Young Author & Wanderer Brian Moore

Brian Moore was born into a large, middle-class Catholic family, the fourth of nine children, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was a surgeon and lecturer, and his mother had been a nurse.

In 1940 he became an Air Raid Warden, their role to enforce blackouts and report on bombing incidences, a role that would inspire the third in his ‘Belfast’ trilogies The Emperor of Ice-cream (1965). He also worked for the British Ministry of War Transport with postings to Algiers, Naples, Toulon and Marseille. After a period working for the United Nations in Poland he left Europe in 1948.

After following his lover Margaret Swanson to Canada, he would work for the Montreal Gazette, marry, become a Canadian citizen, begin to write stories for a weekend magazine and pulp novels for Harlequin under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Bryan (1954-1957). Around this time, he wrote his first literary novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne a story of an alcoholic Catholic spinster, set in a boarding house on Camden Street in Belfast.

Looking back, he said, “I was very lonely, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning no money and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.”

Cross Genre Rule Breaker

Brain Moore 100 Northern Ireland

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

He wrote short stories, pulp novels, literary novels, screen plays and explored a wide variety of genres including magical realism, historical fiction, thrillers and social realism. The context of his writing covered World War II,  the Northern Irish “Troubles”, Second Wave Feminism, Vatican II and other shifts within the Catholic Church and the Cold War.

His early rejection of the Catholic church filtered into much of his work, and his experiences during the war likely contributed to a pessimistic view of humanity. His isolation and ‘outsider’ perspective gave him unique and provocative insights, perhaps without fear or care of consequence.

He wrote 26 novels over the span of 50 years, living most of his life in Canada and the US, writing at a distance from his native land. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975, the inaugural Sunday Express Book of the Year award in 1987 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. His first four (mainstream) novels were banned in Ireland.

Brian Moore at 100

Though his work makes such an important contribution to the historical era and commentary on issues, and received both critical and public success, much of it is now put of print, this project attempts to revive interest by reaching out to scholarly critics, readers and the general public. The project is run by Sinéad Moynihan and Alison Garden.

The Read Along Titles for 2021

Here are the books that have been chosen for the ReadAlong, as I read those that I have (in bold) I’ll link my reviews back to this page. I’ve just started Lies of Silence and it’s already gripping.

January Lies of Silence (1999)
February The Feast of Lupercal (1957)
March Fergus (1970)
April The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)
May The Doctor’s Wife (1976)
June No Other Life (1993)
July Cold Heaven (1983)
August The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981)
September The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965)
October The Dear Departed: Short Stories (2020)
November Catholics (1972)
December The Magician’s Wife (1997)

As a novelist, Moore was a shape-shifter who never seemed anchored to any specific nation or historical period; he only belonged to the characters he created on the pages you couldn’t stop turning. Scott Bradfield

Have you heard of Brian Moore or read any of his novels?

If you are interested, why not find one of these titles and join in the Read Along? You can also follow the project on twitter @brianmoore100

Northern Irish Author Canadian Brian Moore

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I think this is one of the most popular reads of 2020, it’s also on the Dublin Literary Award longlist 2021 a recognition of the votes of libraries and readers from around the world.

Passing

I thought initially it was a novel about ‘passing’, similar to Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) that I read last year, a subject that at the time of Larsen’s book, literally hundreds of books were being written about, however it is so much more.

I knew that I was writing into this long, storied history of passing literature, but I was also writing into it as a writer in the 21st century. And I wanted to look at that genre from my perspective as a young person alive now. And some of that meant trying to skirt some of those tropes in the genre. And some of that meant just trying to reimagine what a passing story looks like in a world where we think of these categories as being inherently fluid. Brit Bennett

Passing Twins Class RaceBrit Bennett’s novel features identical African American twins who leave home suddenly to make their way in the world, and looks at all the ways people survive and hide things about themselves, keep secrets and the impact that has not just on themselves but on others around them. And the many ways one can lose oneself.

It is also a reflection on the conditional aspirations of the white middle class, once you’ve entered this milieu, there are certain expectations, invisible rules, codes of conduct, and when children dare to want to be someone that doesn’t fit into a conventional perception of success, many parents will attempt to manipulate, entice or bribe them into fulfilling their expectations.

“Why can’t you just be yourself?” Stella asked once.
“Maybe I don’t know who that is,” her daughter shot back. And Stella understood, she did. That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realise that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath. So she understood why her daughter was searching for a self, and she even blamed herself for it.

From the Deep South to California, 1950’s to 1990’s

Each of the four main characters, twin sisters Desiree and Stella, and their children Jude and Kennedy, are given significant space to explore worlds as they each venture out from home, we observe their encounters and the repercussions of decisions either they make or that are made for them.

The Vanishing Half Runaway America South

Photo by Gantas on Pexels.com

And there is Early, a wonderful character when we first meet him bringing his gifts of fruit to a teenage Desiree, then later his unique job, hunting people who have run, a byproduct of his own story of having been abandoned by his parents and his ability to be the carer, to be present in an unconventional way, despite his never quite feeling at home anywhere.

The key to staying lost was to never love anything. Time and time again, Early was amazed by what a running man came back for. Women, mostly.

On their journeys, the narrative and characters touch on a range of societal issues such as sexual abuse, racism, poverty, abandonment, domestic violence, sexism, gender fluidity, identity, silencing, dementia. It’s never too much, it’s patient, adept storytelling that doesn’t set out to solve problems, but shines a light on them and offers an inside view. Camille Okhiow

It is Bennett’s refusal to pass judgement on her characters that allows the reader to actively engage.

The Omniscient Narrator

Structured in parts, it moves back and forth in time, using a 3rd person omniscient all-knowing narrator, enabling a slow reveal of questions that build up in the reader’s mind.  A dialogue between characters will open into a stream of consciousness narrative and circle back to the close of the dialogue, accessing the thoughts and imagination of the characters and the narrator.

The Vanishing Half Brit Bennett twins passing identity

Photo by willsantt on Pexels.com

Beautifully executed and paced, it is also very rooted in the town of Mallard, the home of the twins and their mother and the point of departure for most of the characters.

Ironically, it too will disappear, initially in being too small to appear on any map and ultimately amalgamated into a nearby town. Fluid identities come in all shapes and forms.

It’s a book you can’t wait to get back to and can in no way predict the outcome, except that they represent aspects of the many different types of people in societies today.

There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.

I loved it and can’t wait to read her debut novel and see what she comes up with next.

How do we all become who we are?

I wanted to write toward that and think about these characters who are all performing in a way, who are transforming in a way, who are making these choices that are big and small but shape them in some way. I knew that my entry point was going to be these twin sisters who make different choices as far as which race that they want to live and which community they belong to. But I also wanted to explore these other forms of being, other types of identities.

I wanted to think about all the different ways in which we make choices that shape who we are, and [think] about the ways in which making those choices and creating ourselves … can be very liberating, but it can also be very painful. Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett, Author

The Vanishing Half The Mothers Literary InfluencerBorn and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers (2016) was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half (2020) was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller.

She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People.

Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Playwrights Aziza Barnes (BLKS) and Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) have been tapped to write and executive-produce the upcoming HBO series based on Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, after a heated auction involving 17 bidders.

Further Reading

Interview: Brit Bennett on publishing The Vanishing Half during the George Floyd protests by Constance Grady

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

One Interview Leads to Another Book

The Confession of Frannie Langton Black Slave Scientific RacismAlthough I was aware that this book won the popular Costa First Novel Book Award in 2019, I became intrigued to read it after listening to the author Sara Collins interview Tsitsi Dangaremba in the lead up to the Booker Prize announcement, attending an online event created by the independent London Review Bookshop.

She is an incredibly engaging and astute interviewer, which made me curious to check out her transition to novelist with her award winning debut.

Sara Collins was a practicing lawyer for 17 years (and a mother of five children) before doing her Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She is a British author of Jamaican descent.

Book Review

Frannie is a slave and biologically related to the Master Langton, one couldn’t say ‘daughter of’ because there is nothing in his actions or attitudes that bear any relation to her being in any way connected to him. He doesn’t deserve it.

He educates her so she can be his scribe for the book he is writing Crania, a racist text that is actually based on a real book written by an American craniologist who sought to prove that the races were separate species. He wanted to know what was under the skin of man, a man obsessed by his own race’s perceived superiority and willing to go to all lengths to prove it, driven by another in London, whom he sought to impress.

“Langton once told me that when the English soldiers rounded up the obeah men in Jamaica, after Tacky’s rebellion, they experimented on them. Tied them with shackles, prodded them with electric machines and magic lanterns, gave them all manner of jolts and shocks. It must have felt like thunder going through their bones, or pops of lightening cleaving their skulls. When they could no longer stand it, they were forced to admit that the white man’s magic was stronger.”

gothic fiction Costa Book Awards winnerThe first part of the book is set in Jamaica as Frannie narrates her story, although the opening pages are set in The Old Bailey courthouse, from where she sits accused of murder and in this short narrative, she addresses “you” the person she is telling this story, her lawyer.

We understand she remembers nothing of the events she is on trial for. So perhaps in telling her story, she might remember. And so we go back to learn what brought her to be in this position, back to the Jamaican plantation where she was born, the man who raised her, his wife who knew things but withheld them from her and would banish them both.

It’s a narrative where not quite all is revealed in each revelation, so there is throughout a sense of detail being withheld, which might help reader’s understand her motive or guess her guilt or innocence and so the author prevents this, by telling some but all of the detail, so that in reading we come up with more and more questions. Although this is designed to build mystery and wonder, it became a little annoying.

What is Gothic Fiction?

The author admits to being a fan of gothic fiction and perhaps The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an example of that, with its elements of fear, horror, death, gloom, as well as romantic elements. The romance element didn’t quite work for me, Frannie’s connection with another character felt more authentic, but certainly the rest of the elements were there and the blood-chilling facts that exist in history behind the story are gothic indeed.

She decided to write a Gothic novel because she wanted to explore the roots of scientific racism.

“I thought actually that Gothic was the perfect vehicle for that because it’s such a good form for bringing dark things to light. You know, what surprised me when I was writing and researching the novel is how much those great minds of the Enlightenment were actually obsessed with this idea of deciding whether or not black people were human. And I don’t think we tell the truth about that. I don’t think we’ve examined the truth hard enough about what those men were up to.” Sara Collins

It is the suggestion of the horror and the slow build up to it being revealed that delivers the distasteful aspect of the genre and in particular because these white men involved in such activities did actually exist.

Man is a horror.

It’s an extraordinary and commendable achievement, though I think I’ll be more careful before dipping my toe into this genre again.

Further Reading

Sara Collins on the True Crime inspiration & research behind her novel

NPR Review: ‘Frannie Langton’ Takes Power Over Her Own Story by Annalisa Quinn

NPR Interview: A Different Kind Of Story About Slavery In ‘The Confessions Of Frannie Langton’

My Review: This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Upcoming Online Event at London Review Bookshop: Recollections of My Non-Existence: Rebecca Solnit & Mary Beard

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Brilliant.

Toni Morrison February 18 Black History MonthA little way into reading, I had to pause and go back to the beginning, because this story is told not in a linear way, but in a spiral and with multiple perspectives that to me didn’t relate to what the blurb says this book is about.

Florens is the only voice we hear more than once as she sets out on her quest, her chapters are interspersed by those she is growing up around, each one of those is told in the third person, but for their chapter stays with their perspective and views the others. And the last chapter circles back to the beginning and is given to the mother.

The novel begins with Florens beginning to tell us her story/confession and her telling of it will also be the second to last chapter, where she thinks of her mother and what she wishes her to know. We learn of the  plantation where she lived with her mother and younger brother and the accompanied journey she made to her new owner Jacob, given to him in payment for a debt.

It is around 1690, at a time when anyone, of any colour, race or creed could be rented, sold or traded.

The beginning begins with the shoes. When I was a child I was never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes,even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettifying ways.

We meet the other women living on Jacob’s farm, how he has “acquired” them, who he is and why he lives the way he does. And the blacksmith, a free man, the turning point of the novel.

To tell any more would be a disservice, for it is a novel to discover, letting it reveal its layers to you.

Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan. Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed. Pride, she thought. Pride alone made them think that they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations. She should have warned them, but her devotion cautioned against impertinence. As long as Sir was alive it was easy to veil the truth: that they were not a family-not even a like-minded group. They were orphans, each and all.

The Spiralling Narrative

Without looking at the structure, and trying to understand the author’s intention by it, I can see why one might struggle with this, I went back and reread the first chapter countless times as I read forward, because it reveals so much that is understood as we progress. I benefited so much from each time I circled back and reread that beginning. And felt the excitement of realising what Morrison was doing. A lyrical revelation.

The man Jacob gets one chapter, but the first person narrator is the little girl Florens who we see at eight years and at sixteen years and we only understand why, when we read the very last voice, that of her mother, and whose intention it was, who spotted that opportunity, A Mercy. The story is seen from these different angles, perspectives, narrative voices circling the oblivious character.

Just wow.

Ombu Trees Argentina

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

A simple telling of a complex novel in the hands of one of the greats.

To use my own symbolism, which at the end I draw in the back of the book, to capture it immediately it comes to mind, it’s like learning about how trees live in communities and support each other.

There is what you see above ground, what lies below that connects them, and then there is the environment in which they grow, are nurtured, or might wither. And the small mercies.

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.

 

Further Reading

Short Video (3 mins) Toni Morrison on her character Florens in ‘A Mercy’

Dublin Literary Award 2021 – Libraries Worldwide Vote

I haven’t featured this award before, but I’m intrigued because it’s an award where nominations are made not by publishers, but by libraries from around the world, based on their perception of literary merit, so it brings a truly international flavour from a strong readership based group. It is interesting to see both the familiar and unfamiliar among them, a representation of what is being read around the world in English.

Novels From 30 Countries Across 10 Languages

Only four novels from Ireland are among the 49 books nominated by libraries around the world and the award is generously sponsored by Dublin City Council. Full details of the nominated titles, including the name of the library who nominated the book and the reason why they chose it, can be viewed here on the website.

Personally, I have read six of these, When All is Said by Anne Griffin (Ireland), The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (UK), Aue by Becky Manawatu (NZ), The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (US) and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (US).

Now in its 26th year, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner. Titles are nominated on the basis of ‘high literary merit’ as determined by the nominating library. You can see where the participating libraries are located on this map. Three new nominating libraries were welcomed this year: Slemani Public Library in Iraq, South Dublin Libraries in Ireland, and District of Columbia Public Library in USA.

A Third Are Novels in Translation

Nominations include 18 novels in translation with works nominated by libraries from 30 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand. If the winning book has been translated, the author receives €75,000 and the translator receives €25,000.

The international panel of judges who will select the winner, features Jan Carson, a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast; David James Karashima, an author, translator, and associate professor of creative writing at Waseda University in Tokyo; Lebanese-born, Dr Rita Sakr who lectures in Postcolonial and Global Literatures at Maynooth University; Dr Martín Veiga, a Cork-based Galician poet, translator, and academic who lectures in Hispanic Studies at University College Cork, and Enda Wyley, an Irish poet, author, and teacher who has published six collections of poetry.

They will narrow these nominations down to a shortlist of 10 titles announced on 25 March and the winner will be announced in June 2021.

A Free Reading App for Library Users

During Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions, readers can borrow some of the long listed titles as eBooks and eAudiobooks on the free Borrowbox app, available to all public library users.

Have you heard of or used Borrowbox?

The Irish are so keen to get people reading they even have an Ireland Reads Day on February 25 and they invite readers to make a pledge!

 

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

One of the best works of historical fiction I have read in a while and all the better because its based on the author’s great-great grandparents own story, a reassuring factor while reading, because so many obstacles get in the way of the two main protagonists coming together, the young Irish immigrant Henry O’Toole and Sarah, the black slave he first encounters on the road in a storm, who treats his injured hand.

1840’s Virginia

The story is mostly set in 1840’s Virginia on Jubilee plantation. In the front of the book is a sketch of the property, showing the house, the slave huts, the cotton fields, the whipping tree, the kitchen gardens and kitchen house. There is also a map of the region inside the cover, showing where various important locations to the story are, giving it a strong sense of reality, a reminder that these are real locations, that continue to exist today.

“I remind myself that I’m Henry Taylor now. The further south I go, the less likely they’ll know me for Irish. With fewer immigrants down this way, our accents don’t count so much as Irish, Scottish or Swedish. We’re just foreign, which suits me fine. But I keep the Taylor. O’Toole is asking for trouble.”

inspired true story Irish immigrant black slaveHenry is making his living as a blacksmith, after the disappointment of arriving in New York and struggling to find work due to discrimination by employers against the Irish – Irish Need Not Apply.

His story begins in the fields of Ireland around the time of the potato famine and it is the memory of the cruelty of the English landlords that contributes to his sympathy towards the plight of the slaves, though blind to his own privilege. As he arrives on the plantation where Sarah works as a house slave, his ignorance of the South and their ways threatens to put her and those around her in danger.

The other main character is Maple, also a slave, but sister to the Master’s wife, they have the same father, but she became separated from her mother, husband and daughter when her sister married, forced to move with her. Maple is full of anger and desperate for news of her family. She resents the presence of the blacksmith and would like nothing better than to wipe the smile off Sarah’s face.

“I want to tell him to leave her alone. Leave all of us alone. Just ’cause that girl don’t know how to hold herself more precious don’t mean he ought to take advantage, dipping in and out like drinking at the well. He ain’t no different to the rest of them.”

Short Chapters, Three Characters, Fast Paced

The novel is written in short chapters, reminiscent of the style of Bernice McFadden and the issues raised by a mixed race couple reminded me also of Octavia Butler’s excellent novel Kindred.

There is a subtle rhythm in the narrative, where hopes are raised and dashed simultaneously, for Henry, Sarah and Maple. Henry wants to be close to Sarah while Maple wants to rescue her daughter, who lives on another plantation. Their actions in pursuit of their sole desire make it all the more difficult to achieve. It’s like a universal force that acts on them all at the same time, as their objectives and the means they use to attain them intersect, hinder and/or help them.

“There’s two ways to keep a child when you’re held a slave. You can hold her precious, right close to your heart, pouring all your love into her because you know you could lose her any day. Or you can hold her loose, not loving too deep or caring too much or getting too close, knowing that you could lose her any day. Two sides of the same fear.”

It’s a compelling read, with great characters and you really are left wanting to know more, wishing to know more about the lives of these three characters and those whom they are connected to. It’s a book that evokes a very visual response, I felt at times as if I were watching the scenes unfold and can imagine how much more tense it would have been to see this on screen.

Read Soul Lit

I read this along with Didi from Brown Girl Reading in the Read Soul Lit Feb Read Along Group, which is one of her initiatives for Black History Month in the US. I will reading a few more novels this month to acknowledge that as well, reviews to come of a Toni Morrison novel and Colson Whitehead.

About the Author

Tammye Huf is an American author now living in the UK. Her debut novel A More Perfect Union was inspired by the true story of her great-great grandparents, an exploration of identity, sacrifice, belonging, race and love. It was featured on the Jo Whiley Radio 2 Book Club.

Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and she was named third-place winner of the London Magazine Short Story Prize in 2018 for ‘Prisoner’.

Further Reading

Kindred by Octavia Butler

The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Black History Month – 26 Black Americans You Don’t Know But Should

Beyond Black There Is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener

I’m often on the lookout for the little known female voices outside the mainstream, some will be in translation, titles and authors I haven’t heard of, women who have lived a different experience, shared their insights, who might have left earlier lives behind, who illuminate stories that deserve sharing.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Books We Burrow

The Story of Forough Farrokhzad

And so I stumbled across the Iranian writer Maryam Sachs, whose book Without Saying Goodbye (2009) had been translated into English from French Sans te dire adieu, about an Iranian exile living in Paris working in a bookshop.

I then learned her name had changed to Maryam Diener and she had written a book about the iconic feminist Iranian poet and film maker Forough Farrokhzad, Beyond Black There is No Colour (2020).

So here is one writer who left an earlier life, writing about another who was pushed from hers, but who enabled through her poetry and film, other Iranian women to dare to express their own sincere thoughts and words.

Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life and loves and losses, in a way that no woman before her had ever dared.

She sought expression for her depth of feeling, wanted to talk about it with others, and would also follow that same passionate way of being in the world into film making, casting aside more structured plans, to again follow her heart and allow others to have voice through her work.

Forough Farrokhzad, The Rebel Poet of Iran

Rebel Poet of Iran feminist revolutionaryFarrokhzad (1935-1967) published poems that radiated sensuality, plunging depths of emotion, challenging the patriarchal conventions of society and transcending the acceptable boundaries of women’s expression, let alone commit to paper and public record. She wrote of love without shame, removing the invisible but ever present mask the culture adorned women with.

It brought her into the limelight very early on, but also exposed her to jealousy and judgement as her work sparked controversy inside and outside intellectual circles, with dire consequences on her marriage and family relations.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

Book Review

This slim 150 page book is split into 7 parts, part one taking up the first 50 pages encompassing her childhood, her marriage, her early success with poetry and its role in the dissolution of her relationship. What really brings the entire book alive is the use of the first person narrator, the “I” voice.

Diener has raised the voice of Forough Farrokhzad and rather than talk about her, steps aside with the utmost respect and allows her to speak to us of her life.

The book opens on the day Forough is on her way to the UK Embassy to pick up her visa. She is wearing big sunglasses and an old dress that belonged to her sister Pouran, one that makes her feel protected because it belonged to her closest sibling. As she pauses in front of her favourite shop and admires the notebooks and pens displayed in the window, writers will recognise the yearnings of a lover of words.

At the sight of the notebooks lined up in the window I feel the same flurry of anticipation for clean pages, fresh ink and new beginnings. If only I could crack myself open like a new book, and know that there were hundreds of blank pages waiting to be filled.

Alarmed, she suddenly sees her ex-husband and forgets her task and begins to follow him, leading us to a moment of humiliation by a man exhibiting his power and revenge over a woman and thus we learn of the terrible estrangement and loss of custody of her little boy, whom this man forbids her to see, ever.

My sin was to pursue a career as a poet and to desire an identity beyond that of wife and mother. As a result, I am not worthy of being a significant part of my son’s life anymore. I was written off for daring to believe I could exist as an individual rather than simply an extension of my family.

Family Influence Can’t Stifle Creativity

Her father was an army colonel and managed his family like a troop of soldiers, including the morning exercises. However it was he who attached great importance to education and inspired her love of literature.

I had an urge to mark myself as different, and to say exactly what was on my mind. I constantly wanted to show my father that I was an individual with thoughts and feelings, rather than just a soldier following his orders.

Her sister was two years older and married at 18 and it was at this wedding that she met Parviz. Their meeting, connection and early period of being together seemed so promising, despite her father’s reluctance towards the match.

It was this transfer of her affections to this man she would marry that inspired her early poems, however once married and living in her husband’s family home she would encounter the disapproval of her mother-in-law who thought she ought to give up personal ambitions and literary expression. The poems rapidly found an audience, acclaim in literary circles but also attracted malevolent gossip, which her husband began to listen to (along with his mother) and eventually resulted in divorce.

My poems spoke the truth – they were how I lived – whereas other poets tried to apply the morals set by society and religion. I saw new possibilities for Persian poetry.

The Poet Becomes Film Maker, A New Medium for Her Message

The middle parts are often only a few pages long, marking various transitions in her short life, her nine months in Europe when she flees Iran enable her to gain a different perspective but also make her realise she can’t be away from her family and her son.

Her return and a job interview with The Golestan Film Unit introduces her to her great (but complicated) love; her moving from secretarial work into the creative aspect of film making bring her the opportunity to direct and produce a documentary about a colony of lepers, her award winning film The House is Black (1963). (It won the Grand Prize for documentary film in the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1963).

While the men wanted a film to break down people’s fear of leprosy and awaken the governments responsibility to them, Forough had additional ideas.

Although it would be about the leper colony of Bababaghi, the film would also explore the fact that great trouble and suffering is caused when we reject certain parts of ourselves and bury our unwelcome feelings, rather than facing up to our problems and searching for a solution. The story of a community being rejected due to a lack of access to proper medical help would draw wider attention to how societies are willing to condemn anything that is different to themselves, rather than to confront their fears of the other.

Once they walked around and engaged with people her ideas continue to evolve, abandoning the script and deciding instead to dedicate their time to just that, meeting and engaging with people, experimenting with editing and expressing social upheaval in a documentary style, creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, allowing for flexibility. Her experience at the leper’s colony became even more personal when she adopted a boy from one of the families living there.

She achieves a level of social critique in the film by never directly staging or directly naming an image in the text. The absence of the words leprous, leprosy or leper is turned on its head when coupled with photography. While leprosy is never directly named in the poetry, its symptoms are: inertia, indecision, stagnation, empty desires – in short, the same symptoms she sees plaguing her society. Social ills are shown by way of visual metaphor. Roxanne Varzi

Thirty-one years after its release in 1962, in 1993, The House is Black would win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival. The following words of her poetry accompany part of the film, heard/seen here in the trailer.

There is no shortage of ugliness in the world

If man closed his eyes to it, 

There would be even more.

Who is this in hell

Praising you, O Lord?

Who is this in hell?

Our being,

Like a cage full of birds

Is filled with moans of captivity.

Like doves, we cry for justice…

And there is none.

We wait for light

And darkness reigns.

Forough Farrokhzad Beyond black there is no colour

Photo by Cliford Mervil on Pexels.com

It is in this film that darkness sets the mood of isolation, beyond the closed door where these people live, far from everyone else, disconnected from society, out of reach of people’s understanding.

Blackness will be a leitmotiv that thread and echoes between different scenes. There is an expression in Farsi that says, ‘Beyond black there is no colour.’

The Joan of Arc of Modern Persian Poetry

The book is absolutely wonderful, a heartfelt tribute to an astonishing woman, one of those souls whose life was cut short, just as she was making headway, but also with that characteristic of certain extraordinary beings who come into their human lives for a short period, who work prolifically from a young age, creating an abundant output, as if they know that the window of opportunity for them is short, and there is no time to waste.

Highly Recommended.

Forough was the Joan of Arc of modern Persian poetry. Many worshipped her, but at the same time her bold rebellious voice angered male critics. She talked openly about her feelings and desires, challenged the repressive norms and expressed her despair about the social system of Iran. For more than a decade, she was the centre of controversy. The day she was killed in a car accident at the age of 32, the whole country mourned her loss. She became a cultural martyr, a myth, a sacred figure, the most beloved, respected and popular modern poet. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Purchase a copy from an independent bookstore in the UK here

Further Reading

Interview: A 4 minute introduction to Forough Farrokhzad by Sholeh Wolpé

The Paris Review: Feminize Your Canon: Forough Farrokhzad by Joanne Scutts, Nov 19, 2020

Guardian Article: Former lover of the poet known as Iran’s Sylvia Plath breaks his silence by Saeed Kamali Dehghan

New York Times: Overlooked No More: Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian Poet Who Broke Barriers of Sex and Society By Amir-Hussein Radjy

Film Review: The House is Black -The Other Face of Beauty by Karthik Keramalu

Pictura Poesis: The interplay of poetry, image and ethnography in Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black by Roxanne Varzi

 

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War The Balkan TrilogyI’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).

This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy. 

The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.

Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.

Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability

Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.

Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.

It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.

Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory

She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.

The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.

Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.

They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.

It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver

Shakespeare Foretells All

Shakespeare Troilus and CressidaThe novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.

The Balkan Trilogy The Great Fortune

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.

Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.

Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.

The Great Fortune is Life

As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.

When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.

They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?

Harriet responds:

We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’

It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.

Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)

Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.

The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.

N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.