Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

As I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults published in September 2020 and being a fan of many of her books to date, including My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and Frantumaglia, I was interested to learn thanks to the publisher Europa Editions that:

Elena Ferrante has compiled a list of novels close to her heart, all by women authors, and exclusively for Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon for socially conscious shoppers wanting to support high street bookshops when they shop online.

Given the type of characters and narratives Elena Ferrante is known for, her stories usually set in or have a connection with the working class neighbourhood of Naples and concern female protagonists coming to terms with their situation, whether they are girls, young mothers, grieving daughters or an adolescent trying to make sense of the adult world, I thought it would be interesting to know which authors she gravitates towards, who she has been influenced by and being Italian, she is likely to have read books that might be outside the common anglo reading mainstream.

I’m sharing the list here as an easy reference for me to look at and will link any of the titles I have already read to my reviews. I have read 13 of the titles, though only reviewed six of them.

Elena FerranteI’ve also added the countries the author is associated with, either by birth and/or nationality, as I find that helpful, it being one of the criteria by which I decide whether to read a book or not – to avoid always reading works from the same cultural influence.

The list is quite Euro-American influenced, with only one African representation (or two if you count Doris Lessing), so while not quite as diverse as what I like to read, it’s an interesting exploration of the female pysche through female literature of the ages from those cultures represented.

I did also read that the list was limited by what is available in English and by what is available from the Bookshop, so there are titles that haven’t been shared because either they haven’t been translated into English or are not available. I wish they had been included because that might have sparked an even more interesting debate about the lack of availability of works in other languages and to hear the chorus of readers who might have helped persuade publishers to do something about that.

Juliana at The Blank Garden has more to say about that in her critique of the list (see the link to her blog post below), she is very widely read across languages, a wonderful reviewer and has read 28 of the titles. I’ll be referring to her favourites of Elena’s favourites as a further guide!

Elena Ferrante’s top 40 books by female authors

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran/Australia) translated by Anonymous
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria) translated by Philip Boehm (German)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (US)
Outline by Rachel Cusk (UK)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (US)
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iran/France) translated by Tina Kover
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (France) translated by Barbara Bray
The Years by Annie Ernaux (France) translated by Alison Strayer
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Jenny McPhee
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (US)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Canada)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/UK)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (Ukraine/Brazil) translated by Idra Novey
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Beloved by Toni Morrison (US)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Canada)
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (UK)
Accabadora by Michela Murgia (Italy) translated by Silvester Mazzarella
Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine/France) translated by Sandra Smith
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (US)
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (Ireland)
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (US)
Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee
Gilead by Marylynne Robinson (US)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (US)
The Door by Magda Szabò (Hungary) translated by Len Rix
Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Poland/Germany) translated by Jan van Heurck
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium/US) translated by Grace Frick

Further Reading

Critic of the List: Elena Ferrante’s Shopping Advice | Reading Project

Article, Guardian: ‘This is revolutionary’: new online bookshop unites indies to rival Amazon

Article, Guardian: List by pseudonymous author of Neapolitan novels includes Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and several Italian classics

 

You Don’t Look Adopted by Anne Heffron

Adoptee birth trauma adoptionAnne Heffron tells us it took her 93 days to write her book, but really it took a lifetime and she is to be commended for being able to complete it.

Being an adoptee and trying to write about the experience and the double edged sword of searching, is like choosing solitary confinement as a self help therapy. You go in thinking it would be a good idea and it can’t be all that hard just to recount your story, and then that being confronted with yourself, that isn’t your self, or is it, thing happens.

Writing is hard. Writing when you are adopted is even harder. If you think your voice is dangerous in its ability to hurt the ones you love, you learn to keep it quiet.

And then the real trouble starts.

It’s therapy without the therapist, so most will abandon it, that’s something adoptees know a lot about, abandonment, often without even realising it.

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

Heffron’s book is a narrative of threads woven together over those 93 days, but it is also a collection of anecdotes and reflections, she allows herself to digress and share experiences that have given her insights, that might disarm the reader who is looking for a chronological tale, unlikely if you are an adoptee.

Every adoptee’s experience is different, but there are common elements and sharing the experience and making it available like this is an important resource for other adoptees.

Adopted people aren’t much different from people who weren’t adopted, they just live with more questions. They are the human experience intensified.

Much of the book is about the relationship with her adoptive mother, the strong bond they shared and the utter frustration and anger she often felt towards her, the shock of realising that though she was her only daughter, she was a mother to her brothers as well.

MY HERO

prince charming white horse fantasy

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

A few years earlier my half-brother, whom I had never met, got in his car and drove down from his temporary work site in San Francisco to come meet me.

He may as well have come cantering up on a white horse. Having someone claim you is the bomb.

Thoughts on adoption arrive unbidden, so it is understandable that this is a narrative of fragments, and yet put together as they are here, they provide a sense of the whole, not only an incredible achievement, but proof of existence.

Further Reading/Listening

Seven Reasons I Love Anne Heffron by Claire at How To Be Adopted

Adoptees On Podcast – adoptees discuss the adoption experience

My Reviews

A Girl Returned by Donnatella di Pietrantonio (fiction)

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cuming (memoir) – a daughter (art historian) researches her mother’s disappearance

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson (memoir) – raised in Sweden, a Brazilian adoptee returns home

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer (memoir) – born in Ireland, an adoptee searches for her birth mother and looks into the Irish treatment of young unwed mothers

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley (memoir) – an Indian boy lost on a train, adopted to Australia, retraces his journey to find his family

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton (nonfiction) –  adoptee, counselor and adoption-reform advocate

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (memoir) – an adoptive mother reflects

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson (creative nonfiction/memoir)

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (memoir) – poet, adoptee of English/Nigerian parentage, raised by Scottish communists

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

There once was a woman who fell in love with a poem.

So begins a mini essay written for the Irish Times by the author Doireann Ní Ghríofa describing her almost life-long obsession with the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, (The Keen for Art O’Leary), an epic Gaelic lament, published in 1773 by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, upon learning of the brutal murder of her much desired husband, whose unborn child she carried.

In A Ghost In My Throat, she puts aside the documents and transcripts and in compelling, often poetic, multi-layered prose, talks us through the journey this poem has taken her on and carried her through, as she imagines but rarely fabricates the life of Eibhlín Dubh (whose full name translates to Evelyn Dark O’Connell).

It is beautifully coherent and audacious, a feat normally given to scholars occupying dusty rooms in closed towers, firstly that the Caoineadh made it into print and endures, despite being the work of a woman; most who lived in the 1700’s, the 1800’s and even the early 1900’s have long since slipped into silence and out of print and secondly that Doireann Ní Ghríofa managed to pursue her research passion while pregnancy, motherhood and house-wifery claimed most of her hours.

Our Purpose Finds Us, Silencing the Naysayer(s)

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

More than a passion, the poem provided solace, company, offering mystery and a promise, one whose secrets would only be revealed if she trusted the process and closed her ears to the reverberating comment of the visiting public health nurse, who’d snooped through her folders while she was making tea.

‘Art O’Leary! Probably as close as we got to boy-bands, in my day.’ I try to mask my grimace.

‘Taking a night course, are we?’ I shake my head.

‘So what’s all this for then?’ My shoulders answer on my behalf, my whole body prickling crimson. She soon turns to scolding me about the baby instead: no feeding schedule, no set sleep routine, one would imagine with a fourth child a mother would be a little more, well…she lifts her brows and palms.

Though her words provoke tears, self-pity, anger and rage, they result in a resolute clarification of her purpose.

In my anger, I begin to sense some project that might answer the nurse’s query. Perhaps I’d always known what it was all for. Perhaps I’d stumbled upon my true work. Perhaps the years I’d spent sifting the scattered pieces of this jigsaw were not in vain; perhaps they were a preparation. Perhaps I could honour Eibhlín Dubh’s life by building a truer image of her days, gathering every fact we hold to create a kaleidoscope, a spill of distinct moments, fractured but vivid. Once this thought comes to me, my heart grows quick. I could donate my days to finding hers, I tell myself, I could do that, and I will.

A Female Text

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

This is something Doireann Ní Ghríofa has thought long about, years in fact. This poem and the absence of women in texts. The absence of women’s words. The difficulty in accessing the voice, the thoughts, the words, the life of women. Valuing their contribution, raising the importance of their passions and intellectual pursuits, that might valiantly sit alongside the domestic pursuits of raising children and keeping a home.

She is all those things, sharing them, giving them equal value and space on the page. A breastfeeding mother, a lover, a housewife, a poet, a reader, a writer, a medical student, a seer.

This is a female text, composed by folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores.

This is a female text, born of guilt and desire, stitched to a soundtrack of nursery rhymes.

Commemoration in a Poem

Her research tells us that in the old Gaelic order poems were traditionally commissioned by taoisigh – who employed a (male) bard to commemorate an occasion or person in verse, whereas that attributed to women resides in their bodies, in song, in an oral or embroidered tradition. Some say this poem can not be considered a work of single authorship, referring to it as a collage, or folky reworking of older keens. This has our author looking up the Latin for text, to find it rooted in the word ‘texere‘ : to weave, to fuse, to braid.

the Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Reading all she can find in libraries and online, in academic sources or otherwise, relating to her ghostly poet, Doireann Ní Ghríofa sees between and around the lines of texts, scanning for clues. An 1892 publication: The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade: Count O’Connell and Old Irish Life at Home and Abroad, 1745-1833 details a stash of family letters belonging to Eibhlín Dubh’s brother Maurice, from which she is able to:

commit a wilful act of erasure, whittling each document and letter until only the lives of women remain. In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such an experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, present, always, but coded in invisible ink.

There is so much in this book that I admire, that I connect to and could mention, but as I see the word count pass 1,000 words, I know I must stop and let you discover it for yourself. Within the first 50 pages I was hooked, highlighting lines, noting synchronicity’s, reliving heartbreaking experiences, recognising an obsessive desire to follow threads, reading, learning, writing while nurturing, mothering & creating. What a find this was!

Having finished it, I can say I absolutely loved it, it is one of my most scribbled in books, reading it over a weekend, I had to force myself to pause to make it last, a hot contender for my ‘Outstanding Read of 2020’ and a brilliant example of a poet with narrative storytelling ability turning to prose. Sad to be finished but happy with the promise the author makes in the last lines.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

Irish Times : Doireann Ní Ghríofa: The woman who fell in love with a poem

thejournal.ie : ‘It’s so astounding that a woman can disappear to that extent’: Rediscovering the author of Ireland’s greatest love poem

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

2020 Perspective Zadie SmithShort vignettes as Zadie Smith observes this particular moment in history passing, as she prepares to become one of those who returns, fleeing, always listening and observing others, sometimes in accordance with their uttered thoughts, at other times thinking she was, only to encounter her own subconscious bias.

Meditations by a Stoic

They open with the foreword in which she reveals she has been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for practical assistance and admits that she is no more a Stoic for having read it. Rather, she leaves that experience with two valuable intimations:

Talking to yourself can be useful.
And writing means being overheard.

I was intrigued to see what Smith had been talking to herself about and what she wished others to overhear, she is a mistress of eavesdropping and she is a Londoner and rider of the No.98, living/now leaving a country that turns many towards needing the benefits of meditation, though I can’t help but wonder if she would have gained more by listening to 21st century meditators such as Deepak Chopra, David Ji and Sharon Salzburg than Aurelius.

Writer’s and Their Reality

In Peonies, she dismisses writing as being creative, alleging that planting tulips is creative; inferring writing is control.

Peonies by Zadie Smith Tulips Intimations

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.

It was observing tulips that brought about this reflection, a few days before the global humbling began, providing a preview into the now common feeling of everyday, one she describes as a ‘complex and ambivalent nature of submission‘.

She saw tulips and imposed peonies, like the fiction writer she is.

Thoughts On Flowers and Self Care

As ever, Zadie Smith creates a space for the reader to think and affirm their own views, even if she does fill it with her own words and worries.

I was a little concerned by her reading habit in A Man With Strong Hands, though an avid reader myself, there are some times and places when it might be better to put the book down and allow the mind to rest, for this self-care activity she indulges, is one the few that allows one’s existential angst to cease, if only momentarily, for that weekly half hour she regularly gifts herself.

I am reminded that we have as much to learn, if not more in the act of mindful contemplation of flowers as we do in observing that less well understood creature of Nature, humanity.

Further Reading

New York Times: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times

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

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands

 

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph

Yusra is the middle sister of three daughters living with their parents in Damascus. Their father is a swimming coach, obsessed with training his two eldest girls to excel. Being in the pool is one of their first memories and being pushed to succeed an ordinary part of childhood, as habitual as their going to school.

Not everyone in the community approves of the girls swimming, it clashes with tradition, despite the diversity that exists.

A lot of people don’t understand about us swimming. They don’t see the hard work and dedication it takes us to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don’t approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I’m nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself.

Nothing gets in the way of the girls training, even when they don’t feel like it or have an injury, it’s clear their Dad is a disciplinarian and is instilling strength and resilience in his daughters, while their mother is there watching, waiting and supporting them all the way through.

When Yusra is six they watch they watch the finals of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on television. It’s the 100m men’s butterfly and their Dad tells them to watch lane four. It’s the American Michael Phelps. It’s a defining moment for the Yusra.

I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I’m hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I’ll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying.

Though she is in the background of Yusra’s story, I find the mother’s quiet strength and nurturing of significance in the story. Both her own personal development and her continuity in being there for the girls.

Photo by Heart Rules on Pexels.com

Following a terrible scene where her elder sister Sara is having her shoulders stretched and her collar-bone is broken, the doctor insists she rests. Her father is displeased, while her mother tries to help.

Since learning to swim she’s been teaching water aerobics at a hot springs spa south of Damascus, close to the city of Daraa. She’s branched out into massage therapy and tries her new skills out on Sara’s shoulders.

As the political situation in Syria deteriorates, it becomes dangerous for them to return to their home, culminating in one evening when they return from visiting family to find tanks at either end of their street. A soldier holding his assault rifle in the air tells him to take his family and leave.

‘I’m not leaving my house,’ he says.

‘Then get us out of here at least,’ says Mum, her voice choked with panicked tears.

He drives them some distance away, then sets off on foot alone to return to their home,  a mistake, though he won’t learn his lesson yet. They are forced to abandon their home and stay with family, until they find another apartment in a quieter part of town.

Though they continue at school and in the pool, people are beginning to leave. Their father is offered a coaching job in Jordan and departs, alone, sending his salary to them regularly.

One by one, friends and neighbours drift away. Groups of siblings, whole friendship groups, families disappear.  The majority leave for Lebanon or Turkey and then overstay their tourist visas. Some of them end up in Europe. Most of the boys my age are either planning to leave or have already gone. Once guys hit eighteen, they’re eligible for compulsory military service in the army. Only students and men without brothers are exempt. In normal times, its just a fact of Syrian life. But now there’s no doubt: going into the army means kill or be killed.

Yusra turns seventeen, her sister has quit swimming and for a period she does as well, without her father there fighting in her corner, she loses some of her will, until she meets her friends again and decides to return. But when a bomb falls on the building, everything changes.

Sara announces she is leaving, and Yusra will go with her. They will send for their mother and younger sister when they arrive in Europe. They are heading for Germany and will have to take a small boat from Turkey across to Greece, paying smugglers at various places along the way.

It’s a fraught journey, the boat crossing particularly, an overloaded vessel that looks like it won’t make it, that forces the sisters into the water for hours to lighten the load to prevent it sinking. The sea is a danger, but there will be more worrying experiences ahead as they attempt to cross hostile borders and find accommodation in some countries  that refuse to rent rooms to Syrians.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s not until they arrive safely in Berlin that it begins to dawn on them, the immensity of what they have been through. Once settled in the refugee camp and as they begin their asylum process, Yusra finds a pool to train in and opportunities open up for her and Sara, and soon she is on track to attain that childhood dream, though not in the manner she expected, there remain hurdles to confront. And the trauma of others which they’re seeing daily on their Facebook timelines continues, lessening any joy they might feel.

When she is struggling to accept the offer of being part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team, it is her father who reminds her that it isn’t always about the swimming.

‘Very few Syrians get this chance to speak up,’ he says.  ‘You can be their voice. You know a big part of their story because you’ve been through it too. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be heard.’

It’s an incredible story of a young woman and her family, who becomes something of a reluctant heroine and inspiration for young people from the region and for refugees everywhere. It’s very honest, she shares her struggles in accepting the role and opportunity she is given, while being grateful to those who’ve welcomed, helped and made it possible, all the while aware of the continued struggles and horrors being faced by those who couldn’t leave or died trying.

Further Reading

Illustrated Children’s Book – Yusra Swims by Julie Abery

Article in Guardian – Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Women and Hollywood Article – Sally El Hosaini Will Direct Yusra Mardini Biopic “The Swimmers”

Holistic News – 2 Min Video Introducing Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer that represented refugees at the Olympics in Rio.

Rio Highlights – Yusra Mardini’s 100m Butterfly race

Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

Top Five Memoirs

Non Fiction Memoir

Continuing with reading lists, next are my Top Five Memoirs.

It was hard to whittle this list down to five, I could easily have included many others I’ve read and reviewed such as Jeanette Winterson’s gut-punching, exploration of an ill-fitted adoption Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Helen MacDonald’s grief-laden obsession to train a goshawk H is for Hawk, Jacqueline Woodson’s charming, free verse of childhood and old family stories Brown Girl Dreaming, and Tove Jansson’s Finnish island tales and escapades The Summer Book & A Winter Book.

I’ve chosen five lesser known, equally brilliant memoirs, all books that when I look at the titles and covers, take me straight back to the remembered joy of their individual reading experience.

In pondering what it is that elevates some memoirs to that level of something universally understood, I recall one of Vivian Gornick’s insights from The Situation and The Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Top Five Memoir

1.Tales From the Heart, True Stories of My Childhood by Marsye Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Memoirs that succeed record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self, “a flash of insight illuminating the idea grows out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience” and I can think of no better place to start than with Maryse Condé, one of my favourite authors.

The youngest of eight children, by the time she was born her mother was 43, her father 63, thus there were many family stories and life experiences she wasn’t present for, tales she would rely on oral retellings of her siblings and extended family to fill in. In these stories are planted the seeds of her future works, the lack of knowledge of her cultural history and her subsequent research into it, will manifest in her future historical masterpiece Segu, her desire to understand her mother and know her deceased grandmother will inspire Victoire, My Mother’s Mother, her first visit to Africa leads to her debut novel Heremakhonon about a young West Indian woman’s quest for roots.

This short collection of short tales is a beautiful introduction to the life and inspiration of an extraordinary woman and author who has given us so much through her stories and her persistent research and desire to understand what lies behind the lives we lead.

2. Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

After reading her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory I became aware of this memoir and I was particularly intrigued because of it’s focus on the author’s father and Uncle. I have an affinity for books written by women born in or having a strong connection to the Caribbean, I love their storytelling tradition, their connection to a sometimes magical matriarchal force and nature.

This book was unique because it was the first time I’d read something that delved into the masculine. It straddles both a traditional life in Haiti and a new life in America, a unique story of a family trying to improve the lives of their loved ones, narrated by a woman who successfully straddles both, witness to a love between brothers. As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

3. Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is a wonderful Scottish poet and has written a heart-warming story of her connection to her adoptive Scottish family and to her slow-burning desire to uncover the mystery behind her existence. That journey begins at the University in Aberdeen, taking her to a suburb in Milton Keynes and a village in Nigeria, a place she has dreamed of and imagined but had no connection with until she arrives there and walks the red, dust road that will awaken something deep inside her.

It’s a unique cross cultural story, exciting in its revelations and profound in it’s understanding as she learns what family and belonging really mean to her, expressed with the beautiful incantation of a poet.

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal

Remember this? What an incredible family memoir the artist, ceramic potter Edmund De Waal put together here, telling part of the story of his extended family though the voyage of a stunning collection of netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures) and a family history that begins in Odessa, grows and is almost destroyed in Vienna, takes side journeys to Tokyo via that netsuke collection, now sitting in London.

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book, except that it’s a lot more interesting to read the history through the eyes of a hare with amber eyes than one man looking only at himself. In this way we learn something about the art, culture and society of the places these sculptures have inhabited as well as the family history over a tumultuous century. Truly unique, engaging, educational, and a deserving winner of a number of literature prizes.

5. Unbowed One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

I finish with the story of a remarkable woman who I wish had stayed around longer and become more well-known, though reading her story shows us how much of a difference she did make to other woman’s lives in her native country Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and passed away in 2011.

Wangari Maathai was one of a group of young people from East Africa given scholarships and brought to the US in the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ of 1950 & 1960, who gained a degree in the US then returned to Kenya for her PhD. A scientist, initially she worked a veterinarian but her desire to do something practical and far-reaching moved her to found The Green Belt Movement and become involved in sustainable development. She would empower many women to create sustainable enterprises and won many battles to preserve public parks from being given over to urban development. An amazing, inspiring woman and a role model for our times.

Have you read any inspiring memoirs recently?

Further Reading

Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

Top 5 Nature-Inspired Reads

Top 5 Spiritual Well-being Reads

Top 5 Translated Fiction

Top 5 Uplifting Fiction

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of Personal Narrative

A deliberate slow read for me as I wished to absorb the teaching, while researching and writing my own work, something definitely clicked in my understanding which I hope translates across into my writing.

On The Essay
In the first half Gornick dissects a few essays, citing them as evidence of her theory of the narrative that really demands attention and works, because it has been structured, attention being given to understanding the difference between the situation and the story.

A theory that came to her like an epiphany while attending a funeral, where one person in particular moved her more than the others.

Her words had deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my heart. Why? I wondered even as I brushed away the tears. Why had these words made a difference?

She concludes that because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking. She had created a ‘persona’ of herself in order to eulogize the deceased. An instrument of illumination.

The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

But getting from the understanding of a theory to being able to apply it in one’s writing was something that eluded her until she analysed her own attempt of personal journalism (part personal essay and part social criticism) when she was invited to go to Egypt and write about the middle class existence in Cairo. Overwhelmed by the energy of the city, the drama of its citizens, the work mimicked Egypt itself. It would take years before she was able to control the material with sufficient composure to see the situation and narrate the kind of story she wished to share.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

Using examples from different essays and memoirs, she shares extracts to demonstrate the theory in it’s most eminent form e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, Ackerley’s My Father and Myself.

She compares a trilogy of essays that exhibit the way self-implication can shape a piece of nonfiction writing: Joan Didion’s essay on the companionship of a migraine, ‘In Bed’, Harry Crews’s divided feelings about home in ‘Why I Live Where I Live’ and Edward Hoagland’s disturbing urban nature essay, ‘The Courage of Turtles’.

We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows – moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge. The act of clarifying on the page is an intimate part of the metaphor.

Joan Didion, perhaps the most practiced of them all, excavated her subconscious regularly, stayed in touch with the times, and wrote right down to the core of her self-examined existence.

“I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity … but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger.”

Joan Didion, ‘In Bed’, 1968

On The Memoir

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required.

She posits that modern memoir is of value to the reader only if it is able to dramatise and reflect on the experience of transformation or ‘becoming’ as the writer moves away from that person one has been told they should be towards the more authentic version that might be revealed beneath.

Quoting the example of Gosse’s, Father and Son she observes:

That this son must come into his own by making war not on a parent who is willful and self-involved (which he is) but on one filled with the tender regard that alone gives a growing creature the ability to declare itself (which he also is). This is the thing the reader is meant to register; this is the narrator’s wisdom. It is the betrayal of love that is required in order that one become.

These memoirs that succeed are works that record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.

For each of them a flash of insight illuminating the idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organising principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.

Ultimately the advice she gives is to aspiring writer’s is to ask oneself certain questions, both in reading and in writing:

What, we would ask of the manuscript,was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked.

That exploration of the subconscious might precipitate insights to rise to the surface and spill over onto the page, by digging deeper, one may stumble across the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance.

“who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two” had become my single-minded practice”

She ends with an observation about timing, the thing that a writer can rarely predict.

Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at a time that we are reading.

This explains why a worthy book might be overly criticized while one of fleeting value is highly praised, the former, great though it may be, misses the mark because what it has to say can not be absorbed at the moment, while the latter

is well received because what it is addressing is alive – now, right now – in the shared psyche.Which is perhaps as it should be. The inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it.