What Happened To You? by Bruce D. Perry, Oprah Winfrey

Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Conversations on trauma, resilience and healingThis was a compelling read in an interesting, dynamic format, a book length conversation between child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry and the well known broadcaster, philanthropist and show host, Oprah Winfrey.

He brings his knowledge and experience of working with children and she brings not just her own childhood experiences but the learning from thousands of interviews with people who’ve been through trauma and come through it to heal.

The experiences of the first two months of life have a disproportionately important impact on your long-term health and development.

I read it as part of background research into pre-verbal trauma. There wasn’t much on that subject specifically, but the general discussion itself was informative, as were the many case studies and ongoing insights into healing.

There are parts of our brain that are very, very sensitive to nonverbal relational cues. And in our society, this is an underappreciated aspect of the way human beings work. We tend to be a very verbal society – written and spoken words are important – but the majority of communication is actually nonverbal.

It seemed to be more about understanding the effect of what has happened, making that connection between childhood events and a person’s future behaviour and ways of perceiving the world, than about how people heal, although the clues are there. Given how common these experiences are, it’s good that such an accessible book is available to the general reading public.

Regulation, relationship, and reward

The brain is a meaning-making machine, always trying to make sense of the world.

community healing trauma resilience

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A person’s capacity to connect, to be regulating and regulated, to reward and be rewarded, is the glue that keeps families and communities together. Regulation is about being in balance, and rhythm is one of the key ways to regulate. Disassociation is one the self-regulating mechanisms, one that can be developed into a strength.

All life is rhythmic. The rhythms of the natural world are embedded in our biological systems.

The beginning chapters are a little scientific as Perry introduces the parts of the brain that regulate us and then how these events cause disregulation.

Sequential processing means that the most primitive, reactive part of our brain is the first part to interpret and act on the information coming from our senses. Bottom line: Our brain is organised to act and feel before we think. The developing infant acts and feels, and these actions and feelings help organise how they will begin to think.

Healing isn’t focused so much on therapy as it is on the dozens of potential therapeutic moments available each day, that counterbalance the effect.

When you have friends, family and other healthy people in your life, you have a natural healing environment. We heal best in community.

indigenous maori community healing

Photo by diego rabin on Pexels.com

I really enjoyed the references to indigenous thinking on the subject, particularly because Bruce Perry referenced his visit to Nez Zealand where he spent time with Maori elders and healers.

Their way of healing started with a refusal to categorise and to see the “whole”, so instead of focusing on specific problems like addiction, violence etc they talk about connection and community. Its the collective response that is important not the isolated, individual approach western civilisation tends to foster.

Our ancestors recognised the importance of connectedness and the toxicity of exclusion. The history of the ‘civilized’ world, on the other hand, is filled with policies and practices that favoured disconnection and marginalisation – that destroyed family, community and culture.

The concept is to move from asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ in order to understand the effect of trauma, whether it is something known or remembered or not. The brain adapts and is shaped by those experiences, wiring us for certain responses whether they seem logical or not.

We’re just saying this is the way you’re organised and it’s absolutely predictable based upon what happened to you. Then we help them understand that the brain is malleable.

Ultimately, it can create strength. Adversity, challenges, disappointment, loss, trauma – all can contribute to the capacity to develop empathy, and wisdom. They can be perceived as gifts, what we do with them will differ from one person to the other.

Everything that has happened to you was also happening for you. And all that time, in all of those moments, you were building strength.
Strength times strength times strength equals power.
What happened to you can be your power.

Heart shape Green Plant Trauma resilience

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Passenger – Ireland

For Explorers of the World

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsHuginn and Muninn are two ravens from Norse mythology. Sent out by Odin at dawn each day, they return at night to perch on the god’s shoulders, whispering to him whatever knowledge and wisdom they have gathered from every corner of the world. Like Huginn and Muninn The Passenger travels far and wide to bring back the best writing from the countries it visits.

I’ve been reading this over the past week and only meant to read a couple more essays today, but they were so interesting, I kept going and finished it.

Featuring long form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage and visual narratives, it takes readers beyond the familiar stereotypes to portray a country’s shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, its pleasures and its pain. It was published in the UK by Europa Editions on March 17.

Some Numbers About Ireland

Essays About Ireland and the IrishPopulation (the island of Ireland) : 6.9 million (the highest since 1851)

Population (the Republic of Ireland) : 5.01 million

People Who Speak Irish at Home : 83,000

People Who Speak Polish at Home : 120,000

Castles or castle ruins : 30,000

Eurovision Song contest wins : 7 (more than any other country)

Nobel Prizes in Literature : 4

W.B. Yeats (1923),

George Bernard Shaw (1925)

Samuel Beckett (1969)

Seamus Heaney (1995)

11 Essays

The Mass is Ended by Catherine Dunne and Caelainn Hogan

A dual narrative essay written by two women writers from different generations, talking about growing up in Ireland as a woman, how it has begun to transform from an insular, conservative society under the repressive influence of the Catholic Church and how it continued to negatively impact women’s lives long after other countries began addressing such issues. The women discuss the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and the culture of silence.

Bogland by William Atkins

A fascinating and insightful article about the natural phenomena of the midland area of Ireland, covered in peatlands, referred to locally as bogs. Initially seen as undesirable and an embarrassment, they then became a source of revenue, economic growth and jobs, not to mention local fuel. Environmentally controversial like many fuel extraction processes, the industry is now in decline and being phased out. The bogs have been found to contain human remains from the Iron Age dating back to between 470 BC.

An Ocean of Wisdom by Manchan Magnan

An Ocean of Wisdom

Photo by Kelly L on Pexels.com

Fascinated by the Irish language and its connection to fishing and the sea, we learn how the decline of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the language. Magnan travelled to the three areas of Gaeltachtai (Irish speaking) to discover locals words and phrases that expressed aspects of the sea, weather and coastal life, linguistic nuances that described a way of life that is disappearing (due to the impact of foreign fishing trawlers) and with it, a form of expression and being.

Like other old tongues, the Irish language has unique ways of expressing things – one example of which is that Irish regards the unseen world as being just as real as the seen, and this is evident in many ofthe phrases, metaphors and colloquial expressions that make up daily speech. So the word ceantar, for instance, means place, region or locality, while alltar is its opposite, the other realm, the netherworld. They exist simultaneously in all places at all times.

Our physical bodies occupy the ceantar, but our minds can easily slip into the alltar. Only a thin veil separates the two realms, and there were always those who could pass from one to the other, as is demonstrated by the word púicín, which refers to a supernatural covering that allows otherworldly beings to appear unseen in this reality.

The efforts to revive and reconnect to the language and the growing awareness of the importance language is to maintaining connection to a culture is encouraging. Losing language is to lose meaning and connection, reclaiming it might well contribute to the country’s healing process.

Talismans by Sara Baume

Sara Baume is know for her two fiction novels, a third Seven Steeples due out in Apr ’22, however if you’ve read her excellent work of nonfiction Handiwork, you’ll know she is a visual artist and loves crafting things, using her hands, sculpting or making things from different materials and they always have a theme.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirdsIn Handiwork, she was sculpting birds, but here she writes about the Irish cottage, its evolution and the rise of the Irish villas that were much despised for a period of time. As she spends months creating objects that represent small scale versions of these houses, she reflects on the way Ireland’s built environment has changed.

The idea was to draw a contrast between the grandiosity of the monster mansions and my choice of coarse, everyday materials – the intention being to invent an updated and deeply cynical souvenir.

She visits a reconstructed Irish cottage with Marion McGarry, author of The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017), who recounts :

‘the fire was both physically and socially situated in the centre of the house’. Whereas European families routinely gathered around the kitchen table, the Irish would push all of their furniture back against the walls to surround the light and heat of the hearth.

Everything that Falls Must Also Rise – by Colum McCann

The New York based Irish writer reflects on the choice he and many others made to emigrate, what it’s like to return, to become an outsider and be rooted elsewhere, yet still refer to it as home. Full of nostalgia, this one almost feels out of place in the collection, and the enlarged font size stands out almost as a clue to the demographic its likely to appeal to.

At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast by Mark Devenport

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland writes about a region hanging in the balance between two Unions, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned. A century of Northern Ireland, how attitudes and loyalties are evolving and changing with the generations and neighbouring affiliations.

Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies (originally published in 2016) by Lyra McKee

Ceasefire suicides Northern Ireland

Photo by Luke Webb on Pexels.com

An essay written by the journalist Lyra McKee, who investigated the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

This was a fascinating read, because it ties in with Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places and when I began to read Lyra’s essay and her questions, I could tell what was coming, because if you’ve read Thin Places and imagined how many other young people have been exposed to what she had been (including being told “you lot had it much easier than our generation” by their parents) and the subsequent suppression of their feelings/emotions, it’s not surprising that there is a significant proportion of the population, particularly in the towns of Belfast and Derry that have suffered the delayed effects of PTSD, without even knowing it.

Her investigation looks at the cause, uncovers existing research and also learns about how trauma survivors pass their behaviours and certain genes (when parental trauma has been experienced prior to conception) to children.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.

Sadly, Lyra McKee was murdered in 2019.

What I Learned On My Trip to Westeros by Mark O’Connell

I guess there had to be the one that references The Game of Thrones, little more than a guided tour of the locations, an attempt to make a connection between the fantasy of the land imagined by George R.R. Martin (inspired by 15th century civil wars) and the more recent history and reality of a divided land.

Unfortunately, the lens through which he views things around him obscures the actual landscape and barely disguises his disdain for the local guides, while going off on a tangent about a novel relating to the philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations of the Argentinian author Borges.

Citizens’ Assemblies: Experiments in Democracy by Ursula Barry

An excellent and insightful look into the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies, an invention and intervention by common people to facilitate decision making on important issues that have gone unresolved by politicians for far too long.

This was brilliant, I wasn’t aware that it was these assemblies that had been behind some of the most significant changes and reforms in Ireland’s constitution, and a model that has and is being used elsewhere in Europe, when the population begins to protest and govt wants to listen but is unable to act, here is another way that is even more democratic perhaps, than elected officials, who get tied up with multiple agendas and lose sight of the common citizen, especially those adversely affected by outdated policies and inhumane practices.

The final two essays were about one man’s interest in Irish music (from a perspective of a lifetime living in England) and rugby, neither of which particularly interested me enough to write about here!

Overall, an excellent exploration of the life and times of modern Ireland. Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Northern Irish Literature nonfiction memoir troublThin Places is something of an enigma, when I bought it, I thought it was in the nature writing genre, the inside cover calls it a mix of memoir, history and nature writing – such a simplistic description of the reading experience, which for me was something else.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.

This book is a kind of cathartic experience of being inside the experience of someone who has experienced trauma, who has yet to awaken from its implications, or be conscious of its effect – but who by the end will by necessity awaken to it, because it can no longer be contained inside the mind, the body and for the good of the soul, it must be expressed, broken down, if there is to be any change of coming out the other side.

Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures.

So the first part of the book I can only describe as “being in the fog”. We know Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the height of the troubles, that her parents were of mixed heritage, a Protestant father and Catholic mother;  the family existed in the oftentime dangerous in-between, safe in neither space or only temporarily, always moving, never truly belonging.

We have a somewhat difficult relationship with the word ‘tradition’ in Ireland, particularly in the North. The way that religion has latched itself onto the politics of this land has left many people with no desire to look at the imagery of their ancestors; the story of their past. We have lost, broken, murdered, burned, stolen, hidden and undone – all in the false name of tradition. Lives, places and stories have been ripped out by their roots because ‘that’s how it has always been’. I wonder, I wonder so very much these days, what wealth of imagery and meaning was lost when we became so focused on our differences here, that we buried the things that had once tied us together, the things that might still know a way through, for us all.

Though we are told this, the uninitiated reader doesn’t really understand what that means, how it actually manifests on the human level, on a day to day basis – until she arrives at the point where she realises, she needs to confront the reality of the things that happened – because she is losing it – and finding it harder and harder to function in the bubble of denial that allows her to go about her day, to work, to live.

The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deeply I try to bury it. So many different things – situations, times of year, people – made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it – any of it – stop.

Derry River Foyle Ireland

Photo by Ducky on Pexels.com

Only after finishing Part 1 Blood and Bone did I comprehend what I was reading, a woman’s life from childhood up to the age of 28 striving to not give in to the effects of trauma, in the opening chapters, she alludes to those things, though is unable to write directly about them, until realising the nightmares will never stop if she doesn’t, the numbing eventually worse than the pain.

And so she begins to share the events. And it’s tough to read, to absorb as we imagine the magnitude of the effect these events must have had on a child, on an adolescent, a young adult. But what courage, to make that decision, to visit that dark place, to express those thoughts, recount those events, relive the disappointments, feel again the sense of abandonment, to trust that writing about it might bring one towards healing.

While there are those moments of how nature and the many metaphors and symbolism of it kept her sane, this is more about the nature of mind and the necessity of finding and/or making meaning in navigating the troubles of life, in order to overcome past hurts, reconcile traumatic events and find a way to live again, to believe in hope, to elevate one’s self-worth and be able to function in a relationship.

thin places between worlds trauma spiritual healing

Photo by Leigh Heasley on Pexels.com

It is a tough and unrelenting read, that at times I needed to take a break from, but it is one that we as readers are privileged to gain insight from, because Kerri ni Dochartaigh could very easily not be here, and yet she is – and I like to believe that in part that is because the sharing of her experience and path to healing are an important part of her soul’s purpose in this life.

This extraordinary book is part of her life’s work, she has found a way to articulate to the many, the terrible destructive effect of divisiveness , prejudice and intolerance on young people, the effect of not feeling safe during childhood and adolescence and the difficulty of becoming something other than what you knew growing up – of learning to trust, to love, of connecting to the natural environment, learning a near lost language that connects the Irish to their environment and dwelling in just being.

Naming things, in the language that should always have been offered to you, is a way to sculpt loss. A way to protect that which we still have.

Hard going at times, but extraordinary, a beating, bleeding heart, ripped open to heal.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Author

Born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties.

She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She has also written for the Guardian, BBC, Winter Papers. Thin Places was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.

Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton

International Women’s Day

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022 UN

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022

My calendar tells me that today is the journée internationale des droits des femme (I like that in French it focuses on the rights on women, somewhat lost in translation in English) so  I’ve been thinking about what to share.

As often is the case when I ask myself an open question, my mind responds by connecting various other things I’ve noted recently together, creating a common thread.

An article about women surfing in Sri Lanka prompted me to choose Easkey Britton’s book Saltwater in the Blood to read for Reading Ireland Month and it’s the perfect choice for International Women’s Day.

Women Surfing in Sri Lanka

A couple of days ago there was a wonderful article in the Guardian, ‘When I surf I feel so strong’: Sri Lankan women’s quiet surfing revolution by Hannah Ellis-Peterson about the desire of Shamali Sanjaya who grew up in a fishing village, to experience riding the waves like her brother and father whom she would sit and watch enviously.

Easkey Britton Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Sri Lanka

Photo by K. Gonzalez-Keola Pexels.com

When a friend knocked on her door one day inviting her to go surfing, she could hold it back no more, that longing – like the title of Irish pro surfer Easkey Britton’s book alludes to – was indicative of saltwater in the blood. She was a natural surfer.

“When I surf, it is such a happy feeling for me,” she said. “I am filled with this energy, I feel so strong. Life is full of all these headaches and problems, but as soon as I get into the water, I forget about it all.”

Not content to keep her passion to herself, she persevered through disapproval and in 2018 set up the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club, members, ranging from ages 13 to 43. Despite having broken through many local taboos amid accusations of trying to change the culture, many women still face a backlash from their families and communities; however their perseverance has also brought a new lease of life and healing to others.

Book Review and An Obsession With the Sea

I bought this book because I am a sea creature, a lover of the sea, its secrets and legends. I grew up on the wild west coast of New Zealand, near the volcanic rock and black sand beaches of Port Waikato and loved nothing more than going out past the breakers into the big swell of the huge waves there, being lifted up and down and eventually body surfing the wave back in. I loved it.

The coastline is notoriously wild and unfriendly, waves break against rugged cliffs, and the sea in some parts is slowly reclaiming the black sand dunes and dwellings that humans built.

There is something mesmerising about the sea and Easkey Britton’s story shares her physical and intellectual pursuit of it, her mindful practice in relation to it, eventually learning how to awaken to the more feminine element of her psyche in her relation to it with others.

The Irish Coast and Big Wave Surfing

Surfing Natural Cycles Sea Power to Heal Irish Literature

Saltwater in the Blood is an account of her lifelong relationship with the sea, surfing and the rugged coastline of Ireland’s western coast. Complimented by her beautiful illustrations, as on the cover, it is perhaps the nearest thing to experiencing surfing without getting in the water!

She writes about surfing, her connection with the sea and the Irish coast, natural cycles, the ebb and flow of life and learning to let go. 

Right from her early school days, if the tide was out far enough the seafront provided a shortcut to school. Her father surfed and painted and she joined the boys in the water, learning to surf at a young age and becoming a pro champion surfer who toured the world catching waves. 

In the first part of the book she shares how she focused on surfing, following a well trodden path, overcoming fear, learning to read the signs, pushing her physical and mental limits as each level of difficulty was conquered, trying to stay grounded and safe, while riding and being tossed by the waves.

Connect Not Conquer

However, over time, she learned to regard the sea in a different way and began the process of letting go of the need to compete and the heightened awareness that being one of the only girls in the water carried with it. She began the process of moving away from competition towards collaboration (a process that Riane Eisler writes about in Nurturing Our Humanity).

Though she recalls the excitement of learning to tow-surf (pulled behind a jet ski in order to access big waves a paddle surfer can’t get to) and the thrill of surfing the giant waves nearby at Mullaghmore (see Conor Maguire riding a 60-foot Monster Wave), an invitation to travel to far flung places to write about surfing in countries and cultures where it is little known, provides her an opportunity to learn more from what the sea offers, and the unique experience of being in the company of women and their shared relationship to the sea.

Surfing in Iran

One of the most interesting chapters in book for me, was the time she spent in Sistan-Baluchistan in Iran, .

It was a land not known for its surf-exposed coastline. A short stretch of coast, about 60 to 80 kilometres, lies in a narrow swell window between Pakistan and the coast of Oman, exposed for a few months of the year during Indian monsoon season. This was a part of Iran that didn’t feature in any travel guides, let alone surf magazines…At first, it was primarily about the waves, like all surf trips -the discovery of waves that maybe no one else had surfed before. But it soon became something much more.

The first trip was captured in a short film by her travelling companion, French filmmaker Marion Poizeau, an effort that she eventually published on YouTube having failed to find a production or TV company to share it. It went viral – MISSION “SURF EN IRAN”! and was the beginning of their adventure, the second time, the story became about connecting with and teaching a local group of Baluch women to surf.

I wanted to understand the challenges and opportunities of being able to do it and how this compared to our notion of surfing as a pursuit that offers a sense of freedom, flow and escapism and how that was translated in the context of somewhere like Iran.

Surfing in Iran Easkey Britton Irish SurferBefore climbing on the surfboards, they would do what in effect were warm up exercises, but not of the traditional sportsman type, they would play in the waves and get a feel for the swell and the breakers, preparing themselves by sensing the sea’s mood, harmonising with each other.

This change of direction, firstly away from the competitive purpose of surfing and even away from the act of discovery and exploration, towards a meaningful exchange, capable of contributing something meaningful to each others lives, is what I was most impressed by, particularly thinking about that in the context of what today is about, empowering women through sharing knowledge.

It was a breakthrough moment for me personally in terms of how my relationship with surfing and my body truly altered and I realized how much more drawn I was to the connective rather than competitive aspects of surfing and the sea.

Joined by Mona Seraji, a snowboarder and Shahla Yasini, a swimmer and diver, this experience would result in the award winning documentary Into The Sea. Through the eyes of these three women, the viewer experiences the journey from a unique and unusual perspective, full of heart and emotion.

Protect the Ocean

The book ends with a message about looking after the ocean and the responsibility we all have to protect our local water sources.

I also enjoyed that there were so many familiar references to other books I’ve read about the sea or the environment, like Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, botanist Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Anne Morrow Lindbherg’s classic Gift From the Sea and many more.

If you like reading books about the sea and particularly from a woman’s perspective, add this one to your list!

Further Reading

Magic Seaweed’s Hannah Bevan Interviews Easkey Britton On the Power of Saltwater Immersion

Oceanographic Magazine: Living By The Tide  by Easkey Britton on Wild Swimming

SilverKris Article, May 2021: The Rise of Sri Lanka’s First Female Surfers by Zinara Rathnayake (with great photos by Tommy Schultz)

Easkey Britton, Author

Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Lighthouse Cottages

Easkey Britton Working On Her Book at Fanad Lighthouse, one of the ‘Great Lighthouses of Ireland’

Easkey Britton is a world renowned surfer, marine social scientist, activist, writer and artist passionate about the sea. She contributes  her expertise in blue spaces , health and social well-being to national and international research projects.

A life-longer surfer, she channels her passion for surfing and the sea into social change.  Her work is deeply influenced by the ocean and the lessons learned pioneering  women’s big wave surfing in Ireland.

She is the author of 50 Things To Do Beside the Sea, has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and is a regular columnist at Oceanographic Magazine. She lives on the West Coast of Ireland with her partner and their dog Wolfie – however a picture she shared two days ago in a rock pool indicates there are twins on the way!

Reading Ireland logo 2022

My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

It’s Reading Ireland Month and in addition to posting reviews as and when I read books from my Irish Literature pile, I’ll be following Cathy at 746book’s weekly prompts to explore some past favourites.

This week it’s a Top 5 prompt and I was going to do novels, but many of my all time favourite Irish reads are nonfiction, so I’m sharing both.

week 1 Top 5

Top 5 Irish Fiction

There are more than 5 Irish novels that I have rated 5 star reads, so I’m listing the first five that come to mind, that have stayed with me, below. Click on the title to read my review. So honorable mentions to : the incredible Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns and Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, my favourite of the four novels of his I’ve read.

Best Non Fiction Read of 20201. A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – this was my One Outstanding Read of 2020.  Poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work of autofiction/essay reflects on history, motherhood, female passions and the elusiveness of time, place and identity. All this, while reading, rereading, thinking about and translating a 200 year old Irish poem she is obsessed with: “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Somehow she combines this into a fluid, mesmerising text that grabs the reader. Insists. Provokes. Opens Up. Reclaims space. Awakens. Utterly compelling.

“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.”

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Literary Fiction2. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume – I read Baume’s work of nonfiction Handiwork before any of her novels; I remember looking forward to reading this, wondering what her fiction was going to be like. Having now read three of her books it is clear she has become my current favourite Irish author. Using her unique, rhythmic, contemplative style and way of creating character that is so measured and thoughtful, this novel is about a man getting himself into a state after taking on a stray dog and as it complicates his life, escaping with him on a road trip. It is exquisite, playful and surprising.

“I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.”

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist3. A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – No surprise then that her second novel is also in my Top 5, a stunning work about a young woman leaving Dublin city to return to her roots. She moves into her grandmother’s empty, neglected ‘for sale’ house, a place of temporary refuge as she deals with an aberration in her mental health.

Visual art is part of her recovery and the novel includes references to over seventy art installations that she tests herself on. Taking quiet charge of her own healing, creating daily purpose, the novel is itself the work of an artist. Brilliant.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town CWIP Prize 20204. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – this was a novel I saw being talked about on twitter and bought on a whim, in part because the setting in a fish & chip shop in Northern Ireland reminded me so much of our own funny story (linguistic challenge) in a chip shop in the seaside town of Newcastle in 2019.

Written in a phonetic vernacular that creates a harmonious rhythm, it follows a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed, 27-year-old Majella who has a list of stuff in her head she doesn’t like and has just learned her 85 year old grandmother may have been murdered. It’s entertaining, kind of sad, funny and  confrontational. Not my usuaI literary fare, but I totally loved it.

“Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.”

Hearts Furies5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – this novel was on so many reader’s best books list the year it came out, along with an intriguing premise, I was curious.

A heart and soul epic, with a little inspiration from his own life, it is about a boy coming to terms with his identity, exposing aspects of Ireland’s history, juxtaposed with that of the Netherland’s and the US, as Cyril’s life takes him to both those places.

The novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlighting struggles many encountered during those years, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection or violence.

It is a courageous attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations against our own nature, can be harmful to so many, making us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme. Thought provoking and profound.

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

Top 5 Irish Nonfiction

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds1. Handiwork by Sara Baume – the book that sparked my interest in the work of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, it’s like a notebook, not too many words on each page or chapter, sharing something of her year of sculpting birds. A place for reflections on her experience, observations and insights, connections, including memories of her father and grandfather who also worked with their hands.

Quotes from influential texts she’s known for years offer up additional wisdom as daily she repeats the same rhythm; crafting, sculpting, writing, reading.  Like a songbird, this mini book tweets its tribute to those who craft and create, following an intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

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

nature writing Wainwright prize2. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – Incredibly this book was written by a 15 year old boy with an ability beyond his years, it is a diary of observations of the natural world around him, a place that provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to the way he is in the world.

The book follows the seasons through the senses of this autistic boy, who has a passion for nature and the environment and a family in tune with he and his siblings needs. Deservedly won The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort.”

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences3. I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – known for her award winning novel Hamnet, this is O’Farrell’s memoir told through multiple intriguing encounters with death. The opening story is heart-stopping and frightening, deliberately placed to capture attention.

An interesting insight is the awareness of her fearlessness, something that a brush with death seems to bolster, that fortunately motherhood will quell.

“It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”

constellations-sinead-gleeson4. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – In her Reflections on Life, Gleeson writes essays, using parts of the body to structure the narrative, a body containing metal like constellations of stars that front each chapter.

Her essays share the struggles, shame, hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief.  They bear witness to a deteriorating mind,  experiences that seem like weakness, that have contributed to moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring others.

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

affair with mother5. An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer – an incredible adoption memoir written by an Irish journalist now living in the US, who has an experience in her mid twenties common to many adoptees, often referred to as “coming out of the fog”, when they realise that despite a happy childhood and apparent lack of effect of the trauma of relinquishment – something isn’t quite right. It’s a crisis that often results in them seeking to understand their identity, to know who they are, not who they were raised to be.

Palmer finds and meets her birth mother in Ireland, initially it is a positive experience, but the continued shame and fear of the mother, and her insistence on their connection remaining secret, compromises the connection.

In addition to sharing her story Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, researching archives and interviewing those affected. It’s an affecting, intimate account of real lives that continue to be impacted today, a cruel legacy of church and state judging and shaming young women, punishing innocent children.

“What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.”

Next Week: My Year In Irish Lit!

It’s Reading Ireland Month 2022

Irish Culture and Belfast

Cathy over at 746 Books runs an annual Reading Ireland celebration of books and culture every year in March, so I’m going to try and join in a little. Here in Week 1’s prompt, she shares her Top 5 Irish Movies, interest in Irish cinema currently ascending; Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast a hot contender for the Oscar Awards with seven nominations.

There are four weekly themes to explore and plenty of Irish books on my shelf to read, so you can expect to see a few reviews and other Irish related posts this month.

Reading Ireland logo 2022

More of Moore

In 2021, I joined in another of her challenges to celebrate the Northern Irish writer Brian Moore 100 who lived most of life in self-imposed exile abroad.

I read four of his novels throughout the year, Lies of Silence (1990) (a Northern Irish Troubles thriller), The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) (frustrating literary fiction), The Doctor’s Wife (1976) (slightly steamy literary fiction) and The Magician’s Wife (1997) (French/Algerian historical fiction).

As you can see below, I have a few more on the TBR to choose from, to read this year. And I’ll be writing more about the highlights of 2021 later in the month.

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBR

In addition to reading more Moore, I’m planning to read Mary Costello this year, more of Jan Carson, whose novel The Fire Starter’s I read last year, as well as her Postcard Stories.

NonFiction Looks Promising

I’m really looking forward to the two nonfiction titles in my pile, two nature writing memoir type books Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh and Saltwater in the Blood, Surfing, Natural Cycles and the Sea’s Power to Heal by Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer from County Donegal with a doctorate in Environment and Society.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsAnd perhaps most of all, I’m very excited about this upcoming collection of illustrated essays, photography, art and reporting, The Passenger, Ireland by Irish writers and journalists from Catherine Dunne to Colum McCann, Mark O’Connell and Sara Baume writing about their country in modern times. Due for publication on March 17 by Europa Editions, here’s an extract printed on the back cover:

“A country is composed of its people far more than its landscape. Let’s face it. We’re torturously poetic. We’re unbearably self-conscious. We’re awkwardly comic. We’re wilfully ambiguous. We’ll answer a question with another question. We’ll give you directions towards the exact place you don’t want to go. We’ll walk a hundred miles to receive a good insult. We’re blasphemous. We’re contrarian. We never forget a grudge. We address incomprehension. Our war songs are merry. Our love songs are sad. We have half-doors: we are neither in nor out. We make great fun of despair. And we’re marvellous at spouting rubbish about ourselves. (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) But we are also open to change. It is the eternal dream: to keep on becoming something new. The Irish have always had a great sense of humour, none more so than when their backs have been against the wall. The one thing that has never been given up on, in the Irish psyche, is the presumption of hope – and indeed the presumption of home.”

– From ‘Everything That Falls Must Also Rise’ by Colum McCann

Irish Lit Prompts

Finally, the weekly themes for Reading Ireland Month 2022 are:

Week 1: My Top 5 Irish …

  • for this prompt I’m going to choose my Top 5 Irish Fiction & NonFiction Books

Week 2: My Year in Irish Lit

  • a look at the highlights of reading Irish literature from 2021

Week 3: Irish or Not Irish?

  • Authors you didn’t realise were Irish or those you thought were, but aren’t – Hmm?

Week 4: New To My TBR

  • The punishment for getting involved in this monthly reading celebration, all the temptations to acquire more Irish literature, or how I came to get involved in the Brian Moore thing and all those Mary Costello novels. I’m going to try and resist, but I know I will fail.

So, any recommendations, a favourite Irish novel or book to share? Have you seen Belfast?

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

A book that can be read in an afternoon, this is my first read of Annie Ernaux’s work, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I did find myself wondering why the French title La place was changed to A Man’s Place. I find the change in title unnecessarily provocative and limiting.

La Place autofiction memoir French literature women in translationAt only 76 pages, it is a brief recollection that begins in quiet, dramatic form as she recalls the day her father, at the age of 67, unexpectedly, quite suddenly dies.

Other memories arise as she recalls this shocking one and it is this same recollection she will end the book with, albeit alongside a few other now restored memories, once she has written her way through many others as she attempts to create a tableau of anecdotes that describe the man her father was, their family, social status and surroundings.

A child who will rise into and feel comfortable within a middle class environment, marrying into it, she then tries to look back, remember and understand the characteristics and desires of her family – her father in particular – now that she dwells on the other side, among the petite bourgeoisie.

Having decided she has no right to adopt an artistic approach to write about him (the novel), she embarks on a more neutral tone.

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

Neither fiction or nonfiction, this work has  been described as an autosociobiographical text, one that explores their lives and the social milieu within which they are surrounded, dwell and evolve.

Though she only met her grandfather once, she sketches him through overheard comments, a hard man that no one dared quarrel with, a carter for wealthy landowning farmers.

His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house. He hadn’t had time to learn how to read or write. He could certainly count.

French memoir autofiction nonfictionErnaux’s father was fortunate to remain in education until the age of 12, when he was hauled out to take up the role of milking cows. He didn’t mind working as a farmhand. Weekend mass, dancing at the village fetes, seeing his friends there. His horizons broadened through the army and after this experience he left farming for the factory and eventually they would buy a cafe/grocery store, a different lifestyle.

Ernaux shares memories, observing her father and her own growing awareness of the distance between his existence and way of being and that witnessed at the homes of friends she becomes acquainted with, as she straddles the divide, living in one world, familiar with the other, neither judging or sentimentalising the experiences as she notes them down.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. Which consisted in grasping our inferiority and refusing to accept it by doing everything possible to conceal it.

They are a snapshot in time and of a place and way of life of a certain social class and milieu, one she is able to preserve by collecting these memories in a kind of obituary to both her father and the places he lived and worked, the people he loved, the mannerisms and behaviours he engendered.

His greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.

Annie Ernaux, Author

Annie ErnauxBorn in 1940, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) was born in Lillebonne and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery store. She was educated at a private Catholic secondary school, encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds, and experiencing shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time. After studying at Rouen University she became a school teacher.

Her books, in particular A Man’s Place (La Place) and A Woman’s Story (Une femme) have become contemporary classics in France.

One of France’s most respected authors, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the Prix Renaudot (2008) for The Years (Les Années) and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize (2017) for her entire body of work. The English translation of The Years (2019) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize International and won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2019).

The main themes threaded through her work over more than four decades are: the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences.

Fitzcarrraldo Editions have now translated and published seven of her works into English.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 3: Top 10 Non Fiction

Paris Hotel de Ville Christmas 2021

Sisters in Paris

I had hoped to issue Part 3 of My Top Reads of 2021 in December, however that didn’t happen. I put my books and blog aside for a month while my sister was visiting, to just enjoy each other’s company and the beauty of the local environment where I live.

Given the times we are currently living through, it has been a humbling gift to combine those two things, to re-connect and enjoy our surroundings, albeit mid-winter.

2022 Reading Plans of a Mood Reader

Today my friend Deidre at Brown Girl Reading called and it was like a sign from the book world, a reminder that this post was sitting here, as are the many piles of unread books. Before speaking to her I had no idea what I might read next, or in 2022.

Musée Carnavalet Me Marais Paris History Madame Sévigné de Seve

History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet

As a mood reader, I don’t tend to make plans, but as I stood in front of the shelves, I noticed that I have already accumulated some little piles of books by authors I want to read more of, like Buchi Emecheta, Gayl Jones, Mary Costello, Janet Frame; more books by Northern Irish authors, including a few more by Brian Moore.

There’s a French history written by women pile, inspired by a recent visit to the History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet. It seems something in my subconscious had indeed been planning!

Best NonFiction Reads of 2021

So, to complete there three part series, following on from Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year and Part 2: Best Fiction Reads, here is my Part 3: Best NonFiction Books of 2021 and at the end, I’ve tagged on 4 books from my Spiritual Well-being collection that I read in 2021, each of them equally inspiring and nourishing.

In 2021 I read 28 works of nonfiction, so many of them were were excellent, below is a selection of those that I really enjoyed, that have stayed with me, in no particular order:

Autobiography/Memoir

To My Childresn Children Sindiwe Magona1. To My Children’s Children (1990) + Forced to Grow (1992) by Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) – discovering Sindiwe Magona was one of my reading highlights of 2021. Tired of her people being written about and misrepresented by others, she decided for the sake of generations to come, and especially for girls, to share her experience, of an enriching, loving childhood, of growing up under apartheid and overcoming racist and patriarchal challenges.

The first volume covers her life up to the age of 23, when she encounters the most challenging circumstance ever and then in Forced to Grow, from age 23-40 we learn how she finds a way not only to survive but to grow, develop and thrive, overcoming poverty, pursuing education, collaborating with empowered women, spending over 20 years serving in the United Nations. These two books are like nothing else I’ve ever read coming out of South Africa, more than a gift to her grandchildren, they are a treasure and a lesson in humility to all humanity. I’m hoping there is a third volume in the making.

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoir2. Real Estate (2021) + The Cost of Living (2018) by Deborah Levy (Creative Nonfiction) (South Africa/UK) – An author who left South Africa at the age of 9, Levy’s life and reminiscences are a world away from her birthplace and from the life of her compatriot above, though they have left a barely discernible imprint. While Magona embraces the entirety of her experience, Levy in titling her opening memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), struggles to talk about what she doesn’t want to talk about, using humour, her observation of others and a feminist lens to deflect her existentialism.

In three volumes, as she begins a new phase, unravelling from marriage into mature, independent woman, she reflects on life, her influences, her frustrations, critiquing the roles society assigns us, the way literature and cinema perpetuate them and considers the effect of disrupting them, breaking free. She observes what is going on around her while considering the wisdom of writers who came before, liberates herself from convention, while longing still for aspects of a distorted dream. Slim volumes, entertaining to read, they both inform and obscure, a life in fragments.

autobiography memoir australia indigenous3. My Place by Sally Morgan (1987) (Australia) (Biography/Memoir) – a classic of Australian aboriginal literature, Morgan writes about her childhood when her identity was hidden from her, uncovering her Aboriginal ancestry and understanding why her grandmother was so fearful of talking about the past.

Sharing what she discovered of the life stories of her mother, grandmother and great Uncle to understand why it was deemed necessary to be protected from the knowledge of who she was, she uncovers a heritage and her place in it, in this extraordinary and valuable account. An absolute must read.

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences4. I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death (2017) by Maggie O’Farrell (Northern Ireland/British) (memoir) – a unique memoir told through 17 encounters with death that range from the terrifying to the mundane, the memorable to the repressed.

O’Farrell finds meaning in these experiences, initially cultivating a state of fearlessness followed by the magical effect and shift in perspective that giving birth to a child brings about. A remarkable and thought provoking work using a unique structure, I thought it was brilliant.

Nature Writing

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants5. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) (Creative Non Fiction) (US) – In this remarkable collection of 32 essays, organised into 5 sections that follow the life cycle of sweetgrass, we learn about the philosophy of nature from the perspective of Native American Indigenous Wisdom, shared by a woman of native origin who is a scientist, botanist, teacher, mother.

Sharing scientific knowledge and going out into the forest and field, she demonstrates how close and quiet observation of plants in their habitat teach us. The most crucial lessons being learning how to give back, reciprocity and gift giving, using our imagination and intuition to reconnect with nature and understand the connection between them and us. Just stunning.

nature writing Wainwright prize6. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (2020) (Northern Ireland) – an inspired account of a year in the life of a 15 year old boy with a passion for nature and all forms of wildlife and how his connection to them assists him to navigate life mitigating the intensity and challenges of autism.

His observations are a pleasure to read, his use of language evocative and resonant in bringing the natural world he loves to life for the reader. A writer to watch, inspirational.

Justice/Social Science/History

The Fire Next Time James Baldwin7. The Fire Next Time James Baldwin (1963) (Letters) (Social Justice) (US) – a short book of just two letters, one written to his young nephew, a kind of preparation for what lies ahead of him as he will become a young black man in America and a tender description of who he sees in him, his heritage, his family connection and that he is loved, a beautiful literary gift to a young boy.

The second letter he writes to himself, Letter From a Region of My Mind – like a journal entry, he writes of his own development of his self-awareness, of the experiences that moulded him, of his choices to seek refuge and revenge in the same calling, his assessment of meeting Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin’s message is one of love, of standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. A gem of a book, as relevant now as when he wrote it.

Nurturing Humanity8. Nurturing Our Humanity, Riane Eisler, Douglas Fry (Austria/US) (Social Science/Cultural History/Anthropology) (2019) – The long awaited sequel to her brilliant The Chalice and The Blade (1987) which introduced Eisler’s theory on domination versus partnership models of society, this new book written in collaboration with Anthropologist Douglas Fry, explores how domination and partnership have shaped our brains, lives and futures.

They demonstrate through decades of research how we have been influenced by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning. They argue that the path to human survival and well-being hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, through empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts. A riveting, essential read on understanding human nature and where we are headed.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the Pacific9. Sea People Christina Thompson (2019) (Australia/US) (History)  – I loved and was fascinated by this book, a woman curious about her husband and son’s cultural heritage, looks back at what has been written by various/mostly male historians about these ancient navigators of the Pacific and according to their own paradigm and biases, their theories on how they arrived there.

What she discovers are non-instrument navigation techniques that Europeans weren’t aware of, abilities developed by these ancient mariners that are fascinating to imagine, and that a small group seek to emulate, challenging themselves to go back in time, to think and understand the sea, the stars and nature, as their ancestors did. Fascinating and insightful.

Cut From the Same Cloth Sabeena Akhtar10. Cut From the Same Cloth, Muslim Women on Life in Britain (2021) Edited Sabeena Akhtar (UK) (Essays) – this was a long awaited volume of essays, crowdfunded by many supporters, brings together the voices of 21 Muslim women of different ages, races and backgrounds, allowing them to explore their experience and spiritual perspectives, expressing them creatively.

More than mere essays, collectively, their words bust the all too common stereotypic myths of the hijab wearing woman and introduce us to a bright, humorous, passionate group of women, whose honesty and thoughts are both empowering and insightful. Though they are writing for themselves and each other, anyone interested in understanding the many diverse views of British Muslim women today, will enjoy reading this anthology.

Spiritual Well-being Reads

Finally, one of the genres I like to read is Spiritual Well-being and there is a page dedicated to those books at the top of this blog, for easy reference. They tend to be winter reads, corresponding to that time when we tend to go within and might benefit from a revisiting of inspirational words and an alternative perspective on how to co-exist with whatever it is we are dealing with in the external world.

Sensitives and Soul Purpose

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh WorldThis year I found inspiration from two of my favourites in this field, and two new authors, all of them coming from renowned publisher Hay House.

“Every thought we think is creating our future.” Louise Hay

Anita Moorjani’s Sensitive is the New Strong (2021) (India/Hong Kong/US) is written in particular for highly sensitive empaths, with information about recognising this in oneself, learning to develop it as a strength, while understanding the importance of  how to protect your energetic body from the negative effects of the kind of world we live in today.

Rebecca Campbell What is a Soul WLetters to a Starseed (2021) by Australian intuitive and creative, now based in Glastonbury, Rebecca Campbell, who previously wrote Light is the New Black(2015) and Rise Sister Rise (2016). This latest book is for those interested in understanding more about soul purpose.

She considers the big questions that mystics and philosophers through the ages have been asking about our cosmic origins, in a much lighter way: What is the soul, where did it originate and why have we chosen to come here at this time? You’ll know if this is meant for you or not.

Archangel Guidance and Self-Worth

the female archangels Claire StoneAnother new author I picked up this year was Claire Stone and her book The Female Archangels (2021) (UK) having already read quite a few books by Kyle Gray, which I’ve found hugely beneficial in previous years to carry with me and read whenever I had to deal with stressful hospital environments, unhelpful bureaucracy, anxiety producing school meetings – an alternative to pharmaceuticals I guess!

I enjoyed reading her book, although it might be more suited to practitioners or those already in the habit of ritual, as many of her suggestions require props.

Inspirational memoir of belongingFinally, Worth by Bharti Dhir (2021) (UK/Uganda) – Bharti Dhir was abandoned as a newborn in a fruit box on the side of the road in the Uganda countryside. To this day she doesn’t know who her birth mother was, though rumours created a version of the story and the imagination of the author and reader contribute to what might have happened.

Throughout her childhood there are numerous events, situations, heath problems and challenges that Bharti and her family live through, address and overcome, some of which contribute (at the time) to diminishing her sense of self-worth. With each situation, she shares how she is able to look back with compassion and forgiveness and describe how she was able to turn all that around.

Her reflections on compassion and empathy are enlightening and model a nurturing way to embrace our humanity and practice them as acts of self-care.

 * * * * *

That’s it for 2021 nonfiction reads. Share with me your recent nonfiction favourites or thoughts on any of the above.

Happy Reading for 2022 and thank you for reading!

Claire

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

I read the three volumes that make up Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography over the year, beginning with the slim Things I Don’t Want to Know, a writer in the cocoon stage of transformation, the threads wound tight. A confrontation with denial, it is equally enticing as it is uncomfortable, it reveals as it obscures trying to fit into George Orwell’s framework from his essay ‘Why I Write’.

In The Cost of Living, a more expansive narrative, the threads unravel and insights are plentiful, though some of the thinking that created the earlier restrictiveness remain.

Real Estate Deborah Levy Memoir AutobiographyAnd now the final volume, Real Estate, which might as easily have been called UnReal Estate, in tumeric coloured silk, Levy has shed the cocoon, ready to embrace a new decade, the nest empty.

I became obsessed with silk. I wanted to sleep in it and wear it and somehow knew it had healing properties. It started when a royalty cheque came in and I took it literally and began to sleep by royalty.

With marriage and motherhood behind her, she dreams of a home with a fountain in the garden, a mimosa tree, a place to welcome friends, unencumbered by practicalities or marital vows.

Yet in my unreal estate dreams my nest was not empty.

If anything the walls had expanded. My real estate had become bigger, there were many rooms, a breeze blew through every window, all the doors were open, the gate was unlatched. Outside in the unreal grounds, butterflies landed on bushes of purple lavender, my rowing boat was full of things people had left behind: a sandal, a hat, a book, a fishing net. I had recently added light green shutters to the window of the house.

Deborah Levy Real Estate Paris

Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

As with the previous book, there are recurrent themes, there is a sense of humour and a search for something elusive in the idea of an appealing mature woman character. Deconstructing the stereotype of these persona, she ponders why no scripted female characters had full lives of their own.

It occurred to me that what was wrong with the scripts was that the mothers and grandmothers were always there to police the the more interesting desires of others, or to comfort them, or to be wise and dull.

Accepting a fellowship at the same time her younger daughter leaves home, she prepares to spend some months in a bare apartment in Paris, a new source of inspiration and insight, rereading and reflecting on the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, researching the subject of the doppelgänger.

My empty nest in Montmartre was really a version of my two writing sheds, except I could cook and sleep in it. I worked through the night on my new novel, while the sculptor downstairs worked through the night with her electric saw.

Approaching her sixth decade, somewhat in isolation brings on a melancholic reckoning, a party and as the mimosa blooms, the mood lifts.

mimosa Paris Deborah Levy Creative nonfiction

Photo Larysa Charnakal Pexels.com

It’s not easy to describe the book, being a circular narrative that moves forward at the same time revisiting themes, turning back on itself, considering different perspectives.

The combination of grit, pearls of wisdom and humour, combine in a rollicking read of interconnected thoughts and observations, the searching for and letting go of ideas, those that promise an experience and the outdated that no longer serve the purpose of finding contentedness as a mature woman.

I loved it, finishing it in two days, and all the more for having struggled through the first volume, been both delighted and frustrated by the second and arrived here, at the evolution of an observation and examination of what it means to live, to love, let go and just be.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A Reckoning On Race and The Asian Condition

Essays Race Asian AmericanMinor Feelings is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that invites the reader to view aspects of the life experience of artist and writer Cathy Park Hong, from a little observed and known viewpoint, that of an Asian American woman pursuing her own authentic form of expression, while looking for other role models, disrupting the silence that is expected, through a polemic on race, ethnic origins and art.

There have been a few books published in recent years, on the subject of race and intersectionality, where race intersects with other characteristics such as feminism, gender, class and civil rights.

Cathy Park Hong’s contribution moves between different subjects in seven compelling essays that begin with a memory of her own depression, anger and growing realisation at what was at the core of her disturbance.

In her essays, she deconstructs aspects of life that have contributed to a feeling of oppression and her discovery of artists, comediens and writers, who have overcome something, their example like a stepping stone to her own liberation.

It is a thought provoking exploration of both her own personal experiences and opinions and the examples of other artists, citizens, friends and family that have inspired her to delve into the subject and express a truth.

United

In the opening essay she searches for a therapist, having described what lead her to that moment and then her difficulty in being able to engage with the one she selected.

I wanted a Korean American therapist because then I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. She’d look at me and just know where I as coming from.

connection race Minor feelings

Photo by DS stories on Pexels.com

Her inability to get what she wants or an adequate explanation, followed by a thought provoking conversation with a friend, prove to be defining moments, as she experiences a moment of equanimity, seeing herself from outside of herself, raising her awareness. Her determination and vulnerability fight it out against each other. Intelligence finally wins.

Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

Her enterprising and persevering father, who studied his way successfully out of rural poverty, immigrated to the US in 1965 when the ban was lifted. The little detail of the hard working father and the frustrated mother provide a barely visible backdrop to the narrative, yet illuminate a strength, highlight contradictions and suggest future avenues not unexplored by this collection.

Stand Up

In this essay she finds inspiration listening to and watching Richard Pryor’s 1979 classic concert film Live in Concert, leading to an epiphany, a brief career in comedy and a deeper understanding of her world.

Pryor told lies – by spinning stories, ranting, boasting, and impersonating everything from a bowling pin to an orgasming hillbilly. And by telling lies, Pryor was more honest about race than most poems and novels I was reading at the time.

The transparency she finds in stand up comedy is like an apprenticeship in opening up and practicing in front of an audience. Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have an identity. They can’t hide behind words, they stand inside them.

It is here she defines for us what ‘minor feelings’ are, acknowledging a debt to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai who wrote extensively on non-cathartic  ‘ugly feelings‘ – negative emotions such as envy, irritation and boredom.

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase this feeling of dysphoria.

The End of White Innocence

Here Park Hong looks sideways at childhood, finding her own definition for what that means, dissecting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965 – a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcom X – yet manages to avoid everything outside the nostalgic memories it recreates.

Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.

She writes of innocence and shame, of power dynamics, disobedience and indignity.

The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularised until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation.

Bad English

Recalling her early school education and affinity with bad English, her fascination with stationery.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and and warping it to a fugitive tongue.

An Education

The final essays focus on her university years, her influential friendships and the path of being an artist and eventually moving away from painting and sketching towards poetry and narrative.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven-day workweeks.

Her focus is on her friendship with two friends in particular, unapologetically ambitious artists Erin and Helen, deflecting interest in her mother. The poet Hoa Nguyen persevered:

“You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”

I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.

Portrait of an Artist

Asian American visual artist poetA tribute to thirty one year old artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung  Cha visual artist and poet who on the day she hand delivered an envelope of photographs of hands, for an upcoming group show at Artists Space Gallery, whose book Dictée had just been published, was raped and murdered on her way to join her husband, by a security guard, who knew her.

Cathy Park Hong comes across Dictée when it is assigned by a visiting professor, ‘a bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography.’

Published in 1982..Dictée is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictée documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison.

Struggling to find much out about her, she brings the life of this exceptional artist out of the silence she has been buried, back into focus. What she finds is extraordinary.

The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

The Indebted

The final essay looks back at those to whom she is indebted and discusses this trait as a concept, the weight of it, the gift of it. The difference between indebtedness and gratitude.

Further Listening Reading

Podcast New York Times: Still Processing – The Asian-American poet wants to help women and people of color find healing — and clarity — in their rage. Culture Writers Jenna Wortham & Wesley Moram discuss Minor Feelings & talk to Cathy Park Hong, April 2021

Article The New Yorker: “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity – Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision by Jia Tolentino

Interviews – NPR, Goop, Kirkus, NY Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Yale Review, Medium, Glamour and more.

Cathy Park Hong, Poet, Author

Cathy Park Hong has written three books of poetry Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007) chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, Engine Empire (2012). She is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing on politics and her prose and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, the Guardian, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry,  Salon, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times Magazine.

Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University. 

“Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant, penetrating and unforgettable Minor Feelings is what was missing on our shelf of classics….To read this book is to become more human.” –Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen