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

 

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty by Carlo & Renzo Piano tr. Will Schutt

Art Architecture Nonfiction

What an unexpected pleasure this was. I spent a week reading it, always looked forward to picking it up and loved the shared narrative between father and son as they travelled around the world on an Italian Navy Research ship, during 8 months.

They revisit the sites of Renzo’s architectural designs, awakening his memory of the creative process, the people he met with to understand their needs and that of the community his structures would serve.

A lifetime of work he was passionate about and given him a unique perspective and wisdom, not to mention the deep cultural immersion all those projects provided this now 80-year-old architect and father.

A Sea-Lover’s Journey

Renzo and Carlo set sail from Genoa one late summer day, and from the blurb, would have us believe they are :

guided by the ancestral desire felt by many explorers before them to find Atlantis, the perfect city, built to harbour a perfect society.

It is as much a conversation as a travelogue and one that takes place when 80 year old Renzo is still contemplating retirement, this revisiting of his projects and the reflection they invite, of inspiration and ideas, of listening and understanding, a quiet dissatisfaction his son will probe, and that scandal his early work (Beaubourg – the Centre Pompidou in Paris) provoked.

Sins of Youth
After the Paris adventure he spent years defending himself against people who feared they would put pipes up everywhere. Rogers suffered the same fate, a fate reserved for heretics in the Middle Ages.

“I see Beaubourg as a joyful urban machine, which inspires more than a few questions.”

design inspiration italy Renzo Piano colour water boats

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Carlo questions and muses, he creates a narrative structure within which his father responds and reflects and by the end I can’t even say whose narrative I prefer, there is such a wonderful synergy and relation between the two, a rhythmic flow of thoughts and words.

Perhaps Carlo is able to dig deeper and pick up on certain gestures, more so than another interviewer might, because it is his father he knows so well, referring to him by many names throughout, the Explorer, the Constructor, the Measurer, the Old Man.

Does he call him the Philosopher or the Artist? I’m not sure, but it is clear to me that he is both, his subjects creativity, beauty and place.

A lover of words and speaker of three languages, he educates us in how the word beauty differs in Italian, French and  other languages, something that means good and beautiful, intrinsic in the essence of something. He reminisces with his staff on their collective purpose in a letter he writes them onboard, the day of his 80th birthday.

“The pursuit of beauty. The word is hard to articulate. As soon as you open your mouth, it flies off, like a bird of paradise. Beauty can not be caught, but we are obliged to reach for it. Beauty is not neutral; pursuing it is a political act. Building is a grand act, a gesture toward peace, the opposite of destruction.”

Shard Renzo Piano Architect Atlantis

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I found the entire book totally engaging, from start to finish; their journey and revisiting the building projects along the Thames and the Seine, in New Caledonia and New York, San Francisco and Osaka Bay and finally to Athens, providing just enough information and context to keep the narrative interesting and intriguing, with the addition of that element of humanity that only two people who know each other as well as these two could bring.

A light touch allows you, even at your most determined, to listen to others and seek to understand them. A heavy tread you’re better off without.
Lightness is key to understanding places, and, in that sense, an architect must inhabit the places where he works. I have been a Parisian, a Berliner, a New Yorker, a Londoner, a Kanak.

All the while remaining who I am.

I think an architect who does not recognize himself in the place he is building cannot capture its soul.

Further Reading

Renzo Piano Video : On the Shoulders of Giants – a wonderful, biographical interview with the Pritzker prizewinning Italian architect

Article (with photos): Les 10 projets les plus célèbres de l’architecte Renzo Piano by Marina Hemonet, AD Magazine – including one here in Aix-en-Provence (Le pavillon de photographie du Château La Coste)

Berlin Unorthodox Renzo Piano Architecture Potsdamer Platz

Photo by Esther on Pexels.com

Anecdote/Coincidence : Upon finishing the four part series Unorthodox this week, I watched the short film ‘The Making of Unorthodox’ intrigued by the storytelling, sense of place and adept characterisation it had evoked. It is filmed in Berlin and Williamsburg, but mostly in Berlin, where the Production Designer Silke Fischer, looking for a specific architectural look and feel to extend the metaphor of freedom, found a great location at Potsdamer Platz next to the Philharmonic.

Unbeknown to me, while I was reading Atlantis, I was also immersed in a series shot on location in one of his architecturally designed buildings.

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

Handiwork by Sara Baume

My first read of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, I decided to read her work of creative nonfiction before trying her fiction (she has written two novels Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking).

I stumbled across this after reading the excellent A Ghost In The Throat published by the same independent Irish publisher Tramp Press, so I bought it hoping for a similar experience.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds review HandiworkHandiwork is a pure joy to read, it’s a small book, with often only a paragraph on a page, it has a beautifully thought out structure, referencing a number of different texts that the author, who is an artist, a craftswoman clearly holds dear and memories of her father and grandfather, as family members who worked with their hands.

Overall, it is an exploration of her process and influences, charting a daily practice, working with hands, expressing her creativity.

In The Craftsman, Sennett is a little grumpy about the prospect of confronting the question ‘What is art?’ Instead, he sets out his inquiry as: ‘We are trying to figure out what autonomy means – autonomy as a drive from within that impels us to work in an expressive way, by ourselves.’

After travelling Europe, she returns to her parents home and is greeted in her old room by a cacophony of objects she had assembled over many years, re-conceptualised out of available fragments, collected from her material environment.

a practice that Charles Jencks in the early 1970’s designated ‘adhocism’ – a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand.

Now she lives in a house with Mark, structuring her day between the mundane repetitive tasks of living, mornings dedicated to writing, and afternoons of making.

She considers herself a disciple of William Morris, artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist, who:

blue songbird Sara Baume Handiwork creative nonfiction

Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.

This text is a place of reflection, aided by quotes from the various authors she refers to, relating to her own experience and insights and to the memory of her father and grandfather, one who worked with wood and the other with metal.

From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Her medium is plaster and her subject – she is making, carving, painting and mounting birds. While reading about bird migration. And trying to entice local songbirds she sculpts to a feeder in the garden.

It is like a songbird itself, a small book that sings its tribute to those who craft and create and follow the intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

We must begin, William Morris said in his lecture ‘Useful Work v. Useful Toil’ to the Hampstead Liberal Club in 1884, ‘ to build up the ornamental part of life’

Highly Recommended.

‘This little book is a love-child of my art and writing practices, or a by-product of novels past and coming. It’s about the connection between handicraft and bird migration, as well as simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house’. – Sara Baume

Further Reading

Article: New book is a love-child — of my art and writing says Cork author by Colette Sheridan

Read An Extract or Listen on RTE – Handiwork by Sara Baume 2 May, 2020

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

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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

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

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

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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

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Inspiration in A Title

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

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

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

Non-Fiction Personal Narrative

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

Who or what is Jim Crow?

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

One Woman’s Personal Journey to Accumulate & Document History

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

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

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

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

A Historical Study

Isabel Wilkerson Caste The Warmth of Other Suns Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson, Author

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

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

Three People from the South, Three Decades, Three Destinations

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

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney

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

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

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

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

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

 

George Swanson Starling

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

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

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

Robert Pershing Foster 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1951)

The Sea as Home

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

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

The Sea as Mother

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

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

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

The Sea as Teacher

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

The Sea Rachel Carson Marine Ecology

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

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

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

From Sea to Land, and the Moon Question

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

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

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

jellyfish sea life Rachel Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideal Lake or Seaside Reading

Rachel Carson The Sea Marine Ecology

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist (1907-1964)

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

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

Further Reading

New Yorker: The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson

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

Buy a Copy of The Sea Around Us