Love Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet tr. Rose Myriam-Réjouis, Val Vinokur

A Haitian Trilogy – Introduction by Edwidge Danticat

Love Anger Madness Marie Vieux ChauvetOriginally published in French as Amour, colère et folie, this trilogy of novellas was originally suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968. Seen as a scathing response to the struggles of race, class and sex that had occurred in Haiti, this major work became an underground classic, would send its author into exile and would finally be released in an authorised edition in France in 2005 (this English version in 2009).

Considered by Edwidge Danticat as the cornerstone of Haitian literature, she opens her introduction telling us that “Fewer than a handful of Haitian writers have, both while alive and dead, inspired as much adulation, analysis, and discussion as Marie Vieux-Chauvet.”

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a member of the “occupation generation”, that is, born a year after the United States invaded Haiti, an occupation that would last 19 years. She would use the turmoil of that rebellion as the back-story for Love, the first novella of the trilogy.

“We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence,” she writes of the country we Haitians like to remind the world was the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, home to the only slave revolt that succeeded in producing a nation. What we would rather not say, and what Claire Clamont and Marie Vieux-Chauvet are brave enough to say, is that this same country has continued to fail at reaching its full potential, in part because of foreign interference and domination, but also because of internal strife and power struggles.

In three distinct novellas it unflinchingly manages to condemn totalitarianism and tyranny, with little care of the consequences, an act of courageousness or recklessness, but one that would make a significant and permanent mark in the chronicles of Haitian literature.

Love

The narrator of Love, Claire Clamont, is the eldest of three daughters, of a landowning upper-class family. She is the son her father never had and he wishes her to runs things as he would have them done. However, he hasn’t reckoned on her stubbornness and refusal to affiliate with some of the old ways he indulges, having raised her to think of them as superstitious. As a result she is neither feared nor respected by the workers, whom he had sold parcels of land to fund his political campaigns, a futile effort that has left the family near penniless.

The three sisters of this aristocratic family live together, all coveting the same man, Felicia’s husband. Annette succeeds in seducing him, Claire silently, voyeuristically encouraging her.

Meanwhile, a man sent to reform Haiti is known to use violent, torturous means to get his message across, preying on the innocent.

The love this elder daughter practices is tinged with jealousy, revenge and resentment, laying blame at the feet of an ancestor with dark skin. She resents this ancestor who made her so, resents her father for trying to turn her into the son he never had, resents one sister for marrying a man she loves and the other for having seduced him.

Anger

Anger centres around a family and the day a group of black uniformed paramilitary seize their land, putting stakes in the ground, the grandfather and the young disabled grandson are indignant, the son and his wife wary and afraid, their older daughter Rose is practical, the young adult son Paul going crazy, desires revenge.

Men arrive and plant stakes in the ground of land belonging to a family, they wear black uniforms and invoke fear. Each of the family inside react. Then the concrete arrives. They’re seizing the land and building a wall.

The family is observed, tries to address the injustice, is compromised.

The mother got up slowly, put down her needlework, walked over to the old man and spoke into his ear.

“Look at him, Grandfather,” she whispered, “just look at him.”

The child was clenching his fists and grinding his teeth.

“Who will flog those who have taken our land?” he said without paying any attention to the mother. “Is there no longer a steward who can do it?”

“Alas, no!” the grandfather answered.

“Why not?”

“Because there are ups and downs in the life of a people. As the arrow rises, it gives birth to heroes; when it falls, only cowards come into the world. No steward would agree to stand up to those who have taken our land.”

He told himself that his crippled and sickly grandson was the faint beginning of the next era of heroes and that the arrow had begun its slow ascent only eight years ago. Hundreds more must have come into the world the same time he did, he thought, and with feet and legs as well as a brave soul. A day will come when they will grow up and the birds of prey will have to account for their deeds to every last one of them.

Madness

Madness is narrated by René, a lower class mulatto poet hiding inside his shack, paranoid about what’s going on outside his door and inside his mind, finding solace in a bottle, in rituals to do with voodoo beliefs that most of his life he has rejected and the poet friends he fearfully opens his door to, to offer them refuge. Unclear, what is real and what is the projection of a man’s fearful mind, we read on, aware that under oppression anything is possible.

A thought provoking read that invites the reader to understand more about the historical and present situation in Haiti.

Marie Vieux ChauvetMarie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright, the author of five novels including Dance on the Volcano, Fonds des Negres, Fille d’Haiti and Les Rapaces.

Her works focus on class, color, race, gender, family structure and the upheaval of Haitian political, economic and social society during the United States occupation of Haiti and the dictatorship of François Duvalier. She died in New York in 1973.

Further Reading

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dublin Literary Award Winner 2021

The winner of this prestigious award nominated by public library’s from around the world, has now been announced.

From an initial longlist of 49 books from 30 countries across 10 languages, they were narrowed down to a shortlist of six by a panel of expert judges and the winner, coming from Mexico, but nominated by the Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia library of Barcelona is:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

A road-trip novel of a family driving one summer from New York to Arizona, perspective and voices move from the parents to the children, witnesses, speaking and listening, seeing and observing, the subtle, yet dramatic shift. A story of what happens to the human spirit on a long road journey.

As their journey progresses, countless migrant children are making their way up from Central America to the US border, often alone, separated from their parents. A growing awareness of familial rupture enters the confined vehicle space, as they move closer towards an immigration crisis at the border, as their roads converge.

Lost Children Archive is a novel about the depths of childhood solitude, about children’s boundless imagination, the fragile intensity of familial ties, about tensions between history and fiction and the complex intersections of political circumstances and personal lives.

But more than anything Lost Children Archive is a novel about the process of making stories, of threading voices and ideas together in an attempt to better understand the world around us.” Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli

Born in Mexico, but raised and schooled in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa and India, she learned early on to inhabit a solitary, liminal and observant space, a childhood she attributes her decision to become a writer to, situated between cultures, spaces and their linguistic bridges or barriers.

Tell Me How It Ends, An Essay in 40 Questions

Tell Me How It Ends Valeria LuiselliIn preparation to read Lost Children Archive, I decided to read Valeria Luiselli’s nonfiction narrative essay Tell Me How It Ends which documents her experience as a volunteer translator, assisting child migrants who travelled alone from Latin America to the US, now facing deportation, to fill in the 40 question questionnaire they must respond to within 21 days of arrival.

It’s a sombre read as she and her niece become more and more despondent, discovering they are virtually helpless in terms of changing the outcome for these children, fleeing one bad situation and arriving into another.

I became involved with this kind of work while I was writing the novel, and what happened is I started using the novel as a space in which to pour all my angst and fury and political frustration and emotional sense of stalemate. But I slowly started to realize I wasn’t doing justice to the novel by trying to turn it into that kind of vehicle for my politics, and I wasn’t doing justice to the subject matter itself, either, because I was trying to thread it into this fictional narrative. So I stopped writing the novel. Then, John Freeman, whom I’d worked with as an editor in different projects, suggested I write a non-fiction piece on what I was witnessing in court.

Once I had done that, I was able to go back to the novel and not feel the responsibility of directly covering the crisis. I could focus on other issues and allow the novel to breathe with fictional lungs, so to speak.

Have you read Lost Children Archive or any of Valeria Luiselli’s essays or novels?

Further Reading

Interview : The Social Fabric – An Interview With Valeria Luiselli by Allan Vorda

Dublin Literary Award 2021 Longlist and the Six Shortlisted titles.

Sidewalks, Essays by Valeria Luiselli translated by Christina MacSweeney

The International Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Since I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump I didn’t post about the International Booker longlist when it came out, and to be honest, nothing on it really jumped out at me, so I felt little motivation to share it.

However I do like to have a record of what was highlighted, so I’m sharing below the six books that have made the shortlist and below that the longlist. Clicking on any of the titles will take you a description of the book.

I don’t have any of these to read and I’m unlikely for the moment to add to my list of reading, since I’m looking for more of an uplifting read at the moment.

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

A novel that captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during WW1.

Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two of the many Senegalese tirailleurs fighting in the Great War under the French flag. Whenever Captain Armand blows his whistle they climb out of their trenches to attack the blue-eyed enemy.  One day Mademba is mortally wounded, and without his friend, his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone amidst the savagery of the trenches, far from all he knows and holds dear. He throws himself into combat with renewed vigour, but soon begins to scare even his own comrades in arms.

 

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

Unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, these stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror, with a resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear and in limbo. As terrifying as they are socially conscious, the stories press into the unspoken – fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history – with bracing urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighbourhood is cursed to death when it fails to respond correctly to a moral dilemma.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work. The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, The Employees follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike start aching for the same things: warmth and intimacy, loved ones who have passed, shopping and child-rearing, our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see their work in a new light, and each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether they can carry on as before – and what it means to be truly living. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while simultaneously delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

The story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Following the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova builds the story out of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs left behind: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century takes on the powerful and the privileged. It quickly becomes more about the bourgeoisie. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not equality now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer, a complex and controversial figure. Sifting through history, Éric Vuillard extracts the story of one man whose terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived – a moment when Europe was in flux. Inspired by the recent gilets jaunes protests in France: a populist, grassroots protest movement – led by workers – for economic justice. While The War of the Poor is about 16th-century Europe, this short polemic has a lot to say about inequality now.

Have you read anything on this longlist?

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021

From that longlist of 49 novels here, nominated by libraries from all around the world, today a shortlist of six novels was announced. 

Bernardine Evaristo Valeria Luiselli Colum McCann Ocean Vuong Colson Whitehead

I’ve only read one, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and unfortunately despite the lyrical language, it wasn’t for me. I did recently read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and have heard good things about The Nickel Boys.

I would love to read Lost Children Archive having read her long essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (a nonfiction narrative of Luiselli’s stay in NY and decision to assist child migrants who travel alone to the US to fill in the 40 question survey they must respond to within 21 days of arrival) in preparation to read her novel. And Girl, Woman, Other is another I’ll get around to eventually.

Colum McCann is an author I have enjoyed in the past, but a 500 page novel wading into the Israeli Palestinian narrative by focusing on two families who lost daughters and develop a friendship, sits uncomfortably, described by Susan Abulharwa as a colonialist misstep in commercial publishing.

Here is what the judges had to say about these six titles:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)(nominated by Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia, Spain)

Lost Children Archive“Two journeys—one of countless migrant children making their way up from Central America and Mexico to the US border, and another of a fragile young family taking a road trip down from New York to the Mexican border—come together in this imaginative, heartfelt, and entirely original novel.

Interweaving works of literature, music, maps, photographs, and other documents with multiple narrative voices, Luiselli has composed a masterpiece that is at once an exhilarating, lyrical road novel and an unsparing meditation on dislocation, remembering, and storytelling. Timely and timeless, Lost Children Archive is an immersive work that transports, unsettles, and ultimately elevates the reader.”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (UK)(nominated by libraries in Germany and Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021“A magnificent book fuelled by its own unique energy – one which catapults the novel form into an original, exhilarating direction. Twelve women’s lives are vigorously revealed, each character given an individual chapter of their own. And yet within these chapters Evaristo skilfully weaves all of their worlds together.

The result: an astonishing tapestry of women’s lives – flaws and all – and of the wide-ranging and spirited experiences that have made them who they are. A bravura feat of storytelling by a writer at the top of her game, which vividly celebrates the voices of intergenerational black British women in contemporary times.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (nominated by libraries in Canada, Mexico and the USA)

Fitzcarraldo Editions Translated Fiction“Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a ferocious novel that challenges and astonishes in equal measure. It portrays the most painful margins of a Mexican underworld of poverty and corruption, a universe dominated by a merciless violence that is deeply embedded in the community and in the actions and thoughts of its inhabitants, almost obscuring ant trace of empathy and humanity.

The novel’s hyperrealist language displays striking power, a direct, brutal and incisive energy that transports you headlong into the centre of a hurricane where there seems to be little hope or redemption. Sophie Hughes’ English translation succeeds in transmitting the expressive force and richness of Melchor’s Spanish. It is a novel that does not give you a break and that drags you in its verbal current, so torrential and intense, towards the darkest entrails of humankind, where the shadows live. An extraordinary book.”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Ireland) (nominated by South Dublin Libraries, Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist“They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories”— Exploring Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin’s friendship and peace activism after the killings of their young daughters, Colin McCann’s novel Apeirogon, true to its title, ambitiously presents “a countably infinite number of sides” in its expansive exploration of injustice, loss, relationality and resilience.

Its visionary mapping of displacements and returns, as well as its inventive structure of fragments and blank spaces open up alternative narrative pathways for the histories and futures of Palestine and Israel, powerfully suggesting that “Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.”

On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese/American)(nominated by libraries in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland & the USA)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong“Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is characterised by the same lyricality and powerful use of language he employs in his poetry. The novel takes the form of an extended letter.

A young Vietnamese America man writes to his mother sharing his story and revealing how his story’s inseparably bound to hers. As Vuong’s narrator finds his voice he entertains questions of class and ethnicity, language and sexuality. It’s a captivating and tender story shot through with moments of pure, unsettling humanity. Vuong wants his readers to see that even the most mundane of moments can be briefly gorgeous and transformative.”

The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead (American) (nominated by libraries in Belgium and the USA)

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead“Colson Whitehead’s emerged as a leading chronicler of African-American experience with The Underground Railroad in 2016. Where The Underground Railroad was expansive in its imagination, The Nickel Boys returns to the traumas of African-American history with a very different literary style. Set in a juvenile institution in Florida – the ‘Nickel Academy’ – in 1960s, Whitehead here writes with a pared-down narrative and prose style, tracing the scars of the past in the lives of the present. The writing is spare, clean, and direct; and the result is a novel that not only casts light on a dark moment of African-American history, but also speaks to stories of institutional abuse everywhere.”

The winner will be announced on 20 May 2021 as part of the opening day programme of the International Literature Festival Dublin.

Have you read any of these or do you plan to?

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a bestseller in the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), a National Book Award (2016), longlisted for the Booker Prize and at least 12 other awards. It has been very widely read. I picked it up at a book sale recently and decided to read it during February for Black History Month (US).

What Was The Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the American South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War and by 1840 it had become part of the American vernacular.

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber

People referred to as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations” “safe houses” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

Many slaves headed for Canada because it offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.

Review

Fugitive Slave Acts 1793 bounty huntersCora is an African slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and within the first few pages we learn of her grandmother’s death while working in the fields and not long after this, her mother Mabel’s disappearance, a runaway.

When Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts – there was no one now to tell for sure.

The only thing Cora inherited was a small garden plot and she had to fight to retain it, as others had ideas. Her lack of protection also resulted in her being sent to live in a hut with fellow outcasts.

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Three weeks later she said yes.

The novel explores the difficult conditions the slaves live under, including the significant difference between slave masters who are brothers. When the running of the plantation changes and life becomes even more unbearable, Cora decides to make her attempt, no matter the consequences.

From the moment of their decision onward, the tension ramps up, as the whole time they are on the run, they are being pursued, in particular by one slave-catcher, who has turned Cora into a personal vendetta, on account of his not being able to find her mother.

No one knows what happens to Mabel and far from inspiring her daughter, Cora is driven by anger at having been left. And so they enter the underground railroad system.

The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built that thing had received their proper reward.

Colson writes of the underground railway, as if it is a physical entity, only this is a means of transporting people who are oppressed, vilified, maltreated and scorned by the mostly white population. While others travel by train above ground and see the beauty of a landscape, this route takes them into a damp, dark, unwelcoming labyrinth with no guarantee of safe passage.

At various stops, they enter new territory, sometimes staying a while, other times going into hiding, always fearful of capture.

“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before your final stop.”

It’s not an easy read and a sense of unease stays with the reader throughout. There are moments of horror, of confusion, flickers of hope, of disappointment, exhaustion, disgust. Perseverance. Belief.

He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.

She didn’t believe what he said about justice, but it was nice to hear him say it.

The she woke up the next morning and she felt better, and had to admit that she did believe it, maybe just a little.

I appreciated the novel and understand its popularity, I think my enjoyment of it was affected by the horror and also because I read a number of other excellent slave narratives in February by women, whose way of storytelling relies less on the horrors and violence and more on the varying perspectives of characters, stories that are thought provoking and have stayed with me like Toni Morrison’s brilliant A Mercy and Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union both of which I highly recommend.

 

Dublin Literary Award 2021 – Libraries Worldwide Vote

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

Novels From 30 Countries Across 10 Languages

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

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

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

A Third Are Novels in Translation

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

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

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

A Free Reading App for Library Users

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

Have you heard of or used Borrowbox?

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

 

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

During the weekend, I took a break from my current read to pick up this final slim book written by Kent Haruf, knowing it would be a gentle, soothing read that makes little demand of the reader.

Nights in Holt, Colorado

Kent Haruf last novel set in HoltLike the Plainsong Trilogy, it takes place in the provincial town of Holt where all Haruf’s book were set. This time we meet neighbours Louis and Addie, who are both widowed, early 70’s, living alone, with Ruth, in her 80’s in the house between them.

They’re not close, but one morning Addie arrives on Louis’s doorstep with an unorthodox proposal to alleviate her insomnia. That he spend nights with her, in her bed. She thinks it might help and wonders if he has a similar issue.

I’ve made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.

The novel this explores the development of this new relationship, that Addie has no wish to hide, and it’s repercussions, in that frank, open way Haruf has of confronting his characters with their often uncommunicative selves, forcing them out of their silences, of their set ways, for their own benefit.

Challenging the Quiet to Speak Up, Act Out

When Louis tells Addie he has thought of her, admiring her character, she responds:

Why would you say that?
Because of how you live. How you managed your life after Carl died. That was a hard time for you he said. That’s what I mean. I know what it was like for me after my wife died, and I could see that you were doing better than did. I admired that.
You never came over or made a point of saying anything, she said.
I didn’t want to seem intrusive.
You wouldn’t have. I was very lonely.

One would think at their age they ought to be free to indulge themselves a little, but this a parochial town and Addie’s intention is more of a challenge than she initially realises.

Daring to Be Free, At Their Age

Robert Redford Jane Fonda Our Souls at Night Kent Haruf When Louis’s daughter visits, her explains that it is a decision they’ve made to be free. She tells him he is acting like a teenager.

I never acted like this as a teenager. I never dared anything. I did what was supposed to do. You’ve done too much of that yourself, if I may say so.

There’s a reference in chapter 34 to his earlier novels, where Addie and Louis are discussing the upcoming theatrical season in which they are featuring the last book about Holt Country. The one with the old many dying and the preacher. They discuss the author’s imagination.

He took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. And it’s not anybody in this town. All that’s made up. Did you know any old brothers like that? Did that happen here?
Not that I know of. Or ever heard of.
It’s all imagined, he said.
He could write a book about us. How would you like that?

Yes, there is one of these in the book too.
Photo by Brixiv on Pexels.com

It’s both life affirming and sad at the same time, we have a perspective that not everyone in the community shares, though Haruf seems to be telling his readership that ultimately, if we nurture and allow it, love always finds a way.

A perfect weekend read and fitting tribute to a much loved author.

Kent Haruf died in November 2014 at the age of seventy-one, just before this last book was published in 2015.

In 2017 it was made into a film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

Have you read this book or seen the film?

Further Reading/My Reviews

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Eventide by Kent Haruf

 

Best Reads of 2020

In 2020 I read more books than usual, as a result of the diminished social and leisure life we’ve all had to rein in. That extra home time I gifted to my reading and writing activities and was aptly rewarded.

Books That Soothe the Soul

It was a slow start as the year began, still in the terrible lull that followed the death of my teenage daughter in August 2019. I couldn’t read and when I tried it wasn’t easy to find the right match. The few books that soothed me were more of a spiritual nature, Julie Ryan’s Angelic Attendants Felicity Warner’s Sacred Oils, and The Grief Recovery Handbook; though I wasn’t able to express here how they sustained me, they just did.

Confinement in France

Then in March we were ordered to stay home. In France, it is known as le confinement. For two months I wasn’t able to work and we were only allowed to leave home for an hour a day for exercise within a 1 kilometre radius of home and to carry a printed attestation each time we left home. Ironically, while this was the beginning of a difficult period for many, it was the beginning of a return to a new reality and routine for me. The daily walk, the immense gratitude, the arrival of spring, noticed and appreciated in a new way. I was finding a way back to balance, re-centering.

I wrote a series of blog posts entitled Reading Lists for Total Confinement, which included my:

Alberto Villoldo How Shamans Dream the World into BeingTop Five Spiritual Well Being Reads, Top Five Nature Inspired Reads, Top Five Uplifting Reads,

Top Five Translated FictionTop Five Memoirs and the Top Five books I was intending to read next.

It was a tipping point and re-entry back into reading, and one title that I slow-read and drip-fed myself, no more than a chapter a day, during those two months, that was like an uplifting, therapeutic intervention was Cuban-American Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

He reminds us that we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future. Never was there a better time to refresh this knowledge and to recall the benefit of expressing one’s creativity.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Travelling the World From Home

And so my reading mojo returned and from the comfort of home, I rested in the present, resisted the pull of other media and travelled the world through literature, reading a little over a book a week, by authors from 34 countries, a third of them in translation.

Continuing to favour the imagination in storytelling, 70% of the books I read were fiction, however I read more non-fiction this year than ever and some of my favourite reads came from this genre.

Here are my Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads, as well as my annual ‘One Outstanding Read of the Year’.

Outstanding Read of the Year

Best Non Fiction Read of 2020A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Ireland) – I read so many deserving, excellent works of fiction that were also outstanding, so I revisited this book to remind me why it deserves to be elevated above the rest.

It may be due to my own journey, perhaps there is something about this book that validates my desire to write something fragmented and unconventional, something that isn’t easily categorised.

This work of creative nonfiction is as personal as it is universal, it uses a poem and the author’s passion for it, to bring together various threads of her own life, both before having a family, while on the threshold of birth, being in proximity to death, experiencing love and daring to author a work that bursts beyond genre, challenges academia and waves the flag for women in all her multifaceted complexity.  Language, poetry, babies, dark nights of the soul, creativity, writing, Irish life, the burying and rise of women authors working in partnership.

Much of this book was written sitting inside her car, parked up after dropping her children at school. Forget excuses about finding time to write, or a room of one’s own, Ni Ghriofa deserves a prize for perseverance, achievement, breaking all convention and writing an utterly engaging 21st century kick-ass, feminist oeuvre. Just brilliant. Read it people!

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

Here, in no particular order is the best of the fiction I read in 2020, reading experiences that have stayed with me, that I continue to highly recommend to you all, just click on a title to read my original review:

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin (France) tr. Hildegarde Serle – this was the last book I read in 2020 and a fitting way to end the year, it is a beautiful translation of what was a bestseller in France in 2018, about a young woman who becomes a train level-crossing keeper, then cemetery-keeper. It a story of love, loss and redemption told through an extensive cast of characters, both living and not, demonstrating the interconnectivity of lives, viewed through a compassionate lens. Evocative, lyrical, character lead and quintessentially French.

The Book of Harlan, Bernice McFadden (US) – this work of historical fiction, in part inspired by the author’s own family was hugely memorable and one of the first in 2020 that really stood out for me. It was also the book that lead me into a bit of Harlem Renaissance period of reading which uncovered some excellent older reads that I adored. It follows the life of Harlan from his early years with his grandparents to Harlem and the music scene, to Paris and Germany, and while reading I was accompanied by the music of that era which McFadden incorporates brilliantly into the narrative and had me pausing, listening, watching and learning all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen (US) (semi-autobiographical) – while the reading world in 2020 was devouring Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a contemporary exploration of the American history of passing, I opted to read Nella Larsen’s classic novellas Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). I enjoyed Passing, however the semi-autobiographical Quicksand was equally brilliant. It follows the life of a young woman, a third culture kid of mixed race parentage with a white mother from Denmark and a black father from the Danish West Indies (as were Nella’s parents), foreigners, immigrants, a child growing up with little connection to either culture, who has trouble settling in to the society she is born into. Brilliantly written and observed, I highly recommend it.

Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox (French) – I love reading Condé and managed another two this year including I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem however Crossing the Mangrove was a stand out and had me shaking my head in admiration of her talent. Here she returns to a Caribbean setting, where the death and subsequent funeral of an outsider brings together a number of characters, each of whom narrate a chapter, revealing the multilayered diversity of island society. Though the man’s death is a mystery, it is is more of a ‘noir‘ novel, no tidy resolution, rather an insightful, penetrative look at the folly of life. Brilliant, one I want to reread.

Circe, Madeline Miller (US) – I’d wanted to read this for a while and finally did so earlier in the year and loved it. With Circe, Miller brings a refreshing, feminist perspective to an ancient Greek myth, that reconsiders the motivations of the jealous nymph, allowing her to evolve and grow into the fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that she becomes while living in exile. Rather than the evil sorceress men have historically depicted her as, here we meet a more nuanced, balanced and complex character. Brilliant.

The Adventures of China Iron, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina), tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre (Spanish) – short listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 this was one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a while, a contemporary retelling of a well-known Argentinian gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández; that title a lament for a disappearing way of life, whereas this is an elegy to what could have been, told from the perspective of his little mentioned wife, a tale of adventure, emancipation, sexual freedom and liberation. It didn’t win, but it remains a firm favourite of the year for me.

A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy), tr. Ann Goldstein – this novella was an unexpected surprise, I read four books translated from Italian this year, Elena Ferrante’s latest The Lying Life of Adults and her debut Troubling Love, both of which were excellent, but it was this novella that has stayed in my mind. A thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she was born to without being told why. Determined to unravel the cause of abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and now by her adoptive family, the book explores the changes that happen as she detaches from one and becomes entwined in the other. It’s brilliantly depicted, thought provoking and insightful.

Auē, Becky Manawatu (NZ) – last year I read the winner of the NZ Book Award This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman and this year when Auē took the prize, I bought a copy immediately. Very different books, both explore a darker aspect of New Zealand life. Aue has you on the edge of the seat, following the lives of an eight year old boy, his older brother and a couple they are connected to. The characters are unforgettable, portrayed with empathy without indulging sentimentality. The proximity of vulnerability to brutality is intense and unforgettable. You won’t read anything else like this in 2020. Extraordinary literary fiction from elsewhere. Go on. Read it.

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao (Taiwan) tr. Mike Fu (Chinese) – incredible that it has taken 40 years for this title to come to our attention and be translated. This was definitely the funniest, sometimes scariest and surprising read of the year. Sanmao wasn’t exactly a hippy, she was one of a kind, a woman way ahead of her time and outside of her culture, travelling with her Spanish boyfriend in the 70’s with the intention to live in the Spanish Sahara like a local, thanks to a deep passion for the landscape and curiosity for its people. The situations she finds herself in, the people she meets and the tender love affair with the man who indulges her whims, was a close runner up for outstanding read of the year.

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty, Carlo & Renzo Piano (Italy), tr. Will Schutt – another from Italy, this is a father and son adventure, a journalist and an architect who take an eight month trip by boat around the world, visiting the various sites of Renzo Piano’s architectural constructions. I requested it on a whim and found it both educational, entertaining, philosophical and surprisingly riveting. This now 80 year old father is an inspiration and his son an engaging, provocative narrator. It left me wishing that more familial partnerships could come together to capture these kind of conversations, that have such universal appeal.

Handiwork, Sara Baume (Ireland) – an author whose name I was familiar with, I read Handiwork after finding it was published by Tramp Press, who published A Ghost in the Throat. I couldn’t believe my luck to have come across another title that blurs the boundaries of genre. Handiwork is an artwork, a lyrical account of a year spent sculpting and painting small birds for an installation. Her morning she spends writing, her afternoons making stuff with her hands, just her Dad and Grandad did before her. An eclectic collage of thoughts, observations, memories and quotes from various masters, it was a total pleasure to read.

A Spell in the Wild, A Year & Six Centuries of Magic, Alice Tarbuck (Scotland) – after reading two novels about Tituba, the black slave woman accused of witchcraft, I decided to read a book with a contemporary view of witchcraft, now that we are safely beyond the era when admitting to being partial to the practice of ritual outside of acceptable religion could get you hanged. And I stumbled across the incredibly knowledgeable author Dr Alice Tarbuck, who puts the formality of her PhD aside to share her monthly rituals, spells and historical anecdotes from a vast canon of literature that portrayed women as something wicked and powerful that needed to be suppressed if not put down. Her six centuries of magic is quite the opposite, unputdownable.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Irene Wilkerson (US) – the product of years of research, and an intimate relationship with three people, from three different states and decades through whom Wilkerson recounts history, this is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow Southern states of America, beginning just after WW1 in 1915, continuing until the 1970’s. It’s a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old and a fascinating insight into black American history told in a compelling way.

* * * * * * *

And there it is, a summary of the most memorable books I read in 2020, thank you for your patience if you managed to read this far! Do you have a few absolute favourite reads of the year to share? Did you read any of those I mention here? Let me know in the comments below.

 

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s Freshwater was an incredible read and a real insight into a cultural perspective, taking you inside it and experiencing it, so I was very much looking forward to this next work.

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureThough we learn that Vivek is dead from the cover and in the opening pages, the novel is in a sense a mystery as the details around the death are not revealed until the end. The novel is set in Nigeria, in a community of mostly mixed race families.

The narrative is multi perspective, told through the voice of Vivek, his cousin and close friend Osita and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter is one sentence:

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.

The market burning down provides a beginning, a middle and an ending, it features in exactly those places, here as a marker or a clue, in the middle as an observation by a previously unknown character whose wife runs a stall in the middle of the market and at the end, when Vivek’s final day is shared.

The first half of the book we get to know the families, Chika, his brother Ekene, married to Mary, then later Chika’s Indian wife Kavita, mother to Vivek. The narrative tells the story of their marriage, of how they try to raise their only child. Kavita is part of a group of women referred to as the Nigerwives.

She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children. They belonged to an organisation called Nigerwives, which helped them assimilate into these new lives so far away from the countries they’d come from. They weren’t wealthy expats, at least not the ones we knew. They didn’t come to work for oil companies; they simply came for their husbands, for their families.

The Death of Vivek Oji Awaeke Emezi

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Through the friendships of the mothers, Osita and Vivek become friends with JuJu and Elisabeth. Among themselves, away from school or family and outside of society, they are already a group who is different, and with each other, they are accepting, able to express themselves, though they have each inherited varying degrees of conditioning from their mixed parentage.

Vivek is sent away to school, about which we learn very little, we know he is unhappy and bears scars.

The narrative explores the development of their friendships and sexuality, interspersed with the present day obsession of Kavita, determined to find out how her son’s body mysteriously turned up on their front veranda wrapped in a fabric.

Chika didn’t want to ask any question. Kavita, though, was made of nothing but questions, hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers.

Maybe it was intentional, but in creating the element of mystery, much about the character of Vivek is held back, perhaps to recreate the effect of what the parent might have experienced, but for me personally, I found it disappointing that the character of Vivek was compromised and an opportunity missed to inhabit that character more.

The deliberate obscuring heightens the effect of the reveal, but sacrifices the opportunity to share something more profound with readers. It’s difficult to develop empathy for a character, when so much is held back and when the potential is clearly there.

That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.

It’s a novel of secrets and lies and the debate of truth versus respect, in that belief that the two can’t coexist. And the safety inherent within a fear of judgement by some, versus the danger of a lack of fear in others. A theme that is likely to continue to be explored by Emezi.

“Look,” she said, “eventually all secrets come out. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer it takes, the worse it is in the end.”

As I read, I can feel what I am bringing to the narrative, where I want the author to go and by the end they do go some of the way, but not all. And that is on me, it is asking an already courageous writer to go further, to places that us readers, like sports fans, might never go ourselves, but from the benches we shout in encouragement. So I leave the last words to the author, as a reminder to us all of what this is.

I had to remember why I was making this work. I wasn’t making it for institutional validation. I was making this work for specific people — all the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here. All the little trans babies who are just like, there is no world in which my parents will love me and accept me. There’s a mission to all of this. Akwaeke Emezi

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi

N.B. This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.