Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

To My Children’s Children by Sindiwe Magona (1990)

“Until the lioness can tell its own story the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African Proverb

This first of two autobiographies by South African author Sindiwe Magona was initially published in 1990, and the second volume in 1997.

A Lioness Shares Her Story

Frustrated like many, at seeing her country and people portrayed as backward and uncivilised by colonisers, she decided to rectify the balance, a literary scholar, sharing her life and experience first hand, an important and insightful narrative for a wider audience, dedicated to her own children and grandchildren, and perhaps especially for girls, on their path to womanhood.

In a conversation with anthropologist and activist Elaine Salo, Magona said:

I experienced incredible anger about others writing about us, I asked myself, ‘How dare they write about you?’ I told myself that shouldn’t stop me from writing about myself … There is value in those like me writing about our experiences, who did not study apartheid but lived it.

It is authentic experiences like this, that offer a richness in understanding other cultures from the inside, reading the personal experience of one women in her struggle to raise and support her children, understanding how her childhood and upbringing shaped and supported her, enabling her to cope when other societal support structures let her down.

Review

Autobiography South Africa WomenThe slim autobiography shares stories from her childhood up to the age of 23, all of it taking place in South Africa. In her early years, as was customary among amaXhosa people, she lived with her grandparents. It was often the case while parents were trying to earn a living in starting a new life, that the extended family and home community was the safest, most caring environment for young children to be. There was always someone to look after children, they had food, shelter, company and they thrived.

As she explains, looking back it may have been poverty, but that wasn’t something they were aware of; they belonged, were loved and felt secure. There was no awareness of the link between the colour of one’s skin and a difference in lifestyle, until much later, their paths never crossed, outsiders had no impact on their very young lives.

In such a people-world, filled with a real, immediate, and tangible sense of belongingness, did I spend the earliest years of my life. I was not only wanted, I was loved. I was cherished.
The adults in my world, no doubt, had their cares and their sorrows. But childhood, by its very nature, is a magic-filled world, egocentric, wonderfully carefree, and innocent. Mine was all these things and more.

Generations of Storytellers

Not only did they learn and grow from being socialised in these large families, they listened to stories, passed down the generations. There was always one or two in the family, renowned for their storytelling ability, masters in this art and the children revelled in those evenings when they became the audience to them.

Central to the stories in which people featured, was the bond of love with the concomitants: duty, obedience, responsibility, honour, and orderliness; always orderliness. Like the seasons of the year, life was depicted full of cause and effect, predictability and order; connectedness and oneness.

grayscale photo of woman kissing child

Photo TUBARONES on Pexels.com

In this warm, human environment she spent her first five years, immersed in a group where her place was defined, accepted, giving her all she required and more.

Far from the distant world where white people lived and ruled, busy formulating policies that would soon impact them all, policies that invited in certain immigrants, offering them privileged rights, while denying them of the local black population, restricting their ability to move from one area to another, fracturing families, keeping them in poverty.

Everything changed when her mother left to join her father due to illness, to be near medical support and soon after, her grandmother died, requiring them all to leave and join their parents.

A New Era, Fractured Families and Apartheid

It would be fortuitous timing as a year later, in 1948, the Boers came into power and laws were formulated restricting the movement of Africans. Had her grandmother died later, they may not have legally been able to rejoin them.

The move to live with their parents introduced them to a less harmonious world, one where police raids occurred and crime existed. Within the law or outside the law, there was reason to be more careful and fearful. The importance of attaining an education was the focus, to rise above.

The year I left primary school was the year that education became racially segregated. Hitherto, white pupils, African pupils coloured pupils, and Indian pupils could, theoretically, attend the same school. After 1955, the law forbade that practice. There would be different Departments of Education for the different race groups.

Her years of education were dependent on her attitude, some years she did well, others she lapsed, eventually her focus concentrated on becoming a teacher, though in her initial attempts to secure a position, she would initially be thwarted. Her real life lessons were only just beginning.

Lessons from the Real World

Father began hinting at what might at the root of my problem: I had omitted to offer the Secretary of the School Board “something” and people were telling him it would be donkey’s years before I would get a post if we did not oil  this gentleman’s palm.

Though she had done well in her classes, they were inadequate and wholly misleading as to how to prepare to teach children from poor homes, without textbooks, without exercise books, without materials. Trained to teach children from homes where there was a father and a mother, most of her pupils came from women-headed homes. And those women stayed in at their places of employment: busy being smiling servants minding white babies.

Not having books is one of the misdemeanors punishable by corporal punishment. The beatings and probably the sheer embarrassment that must surely accompany the daily proclamation of one’s poverty, prompted a lot of the pupils to pilfer. The very young do not always understand that poverty is supposed to ennobling…

The first class she would teach would have 72 pupils and had all been well, they should have been aged 11 or 12. All was not well however, the children ranged in age from 9 to 19 and the variation in skills just as wide.

Due to her principled stance, that first job would take a while in coming. Unemployed, but desperate to work, she accepted a job at the local fisheries.

Eventually she is offered a teaching job, experiencing the few joys and many disappointments inherent in an unfair, overstretched, oppressive system.

All along, I had known the agony for which some were destined. Such is the design of the government. And such is the abetting by even those of us who regard ourselves as oppressed.  Which we are. But we are also called upon to help in that oppression and unwittingly become instruments of it.

A Woman’s Lot

And then comes the intersection of youth with a newly developing career and as a woman, the added risk of pregnancy. Magona’s challenges are only just beginning and her teaching jobs will become continuously thwarted by how society expects women to behave. The arrival of her own children will force her from her role and into domestic service herself, and really open her eyes to how the other live.

What I had not known was that their perception of people like us did not quite coincide with our perception of who we were and what we were about.

More than anything, however, being a domestic servant did more to me than it did for me. It introduced me to the fundamentals of racism.

The different families she would work for, each provide key insights that broaden her understanding and perception of the other groups living within the country and how the system aimed to maintain and strengthen the situation in favour of white people.

As this volume comes to an end, Sindiwe’s situation seems dire, however, she delivers some of the most inspiring passages of the book, in the low place she has arrived at, she suddenly sees all that she is grateful for, all that she has, even the abandonment of a husband who had never supported them, she recognises as a freedom and a significant contribution to her own growth.

It is a wonderful and frank autobiography and introduction to an inspiring woman. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Forced to Grow, the same title as the last chapter in this volume, in which she shares how determination and resourcefulness lead her through and out of those challenges we end with here.

Sindiwe Magona

My Childrens Children Memoir Autobiography South AfricaMagona was born in 1943 in the small town of Gungululu near Mthatha, in what was then known as the homeland of Transkei, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

She was born five years before colonial Britain handed over power to the Afrikaners. Apartheid was officially introduced in 1948 and with it a series of oppressive and racist laws such as separate living areas and the Bantu education system. It was within this context that Magona grew up.

She is an accomplished poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. She spent two decades working for the UN in New York retiring in 2003. Her previously published works include thirty children’s books (in all eleven South African languages), two autobiographies, short story collections and novels.

My writing, on the whole, is my response to current social ills, injustice, misrepresentation, deception – the whole catastrophe that is the human existence. Sindiwe Magona

Further Reading

The Conversation Article: Learning From the Story of Pioneering South African Writer Sindiwe Magona, 5 March, 2021

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 LongList

Women's Prize Fiction Winner logo 20212020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a feat that was celebrated by the creation of a reading challenge to read all the winners including last year’s Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

There was a competition to find the winner of winners chosen by the reading public, and that award went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel Half of A Yellow Sun (2007).

Interviews, Recommendations, Opinion, On Writing

The team at the Women’s Prize have been active throughout the year and their website is a repository of much more than just longlists and winners.

There are regular features such as interviews with previous winners and nominees, recommendations from judges, for example this years judges Recommendations for Black History Month and Books You Should Discover in 2021.

There is an Opinion Section where you can read about Comedy in Fiction; Women Writer’s Revisited; and the On Writing Section where you can read Twelve Creative Tips From Women’s Prize Winning Authors.

Women’s Prize Fiction 2021 Long List

In the meantime, another season has come around and here are the 16 novels long listed, along with a short summary of their plot. It includes two Irish authors, six British and five American authors, one Canadian, one Barbadian and one Ghanaian/American.

Womens Literature Fiction

The list features new and well-established writers across a range of genres and themes – family (twins and siblings, mother-daughter relationships); motherhood; rural poverty and isolation; addiction; identity and belonging; race and class; grief and happiness; coming-of-age and later life.

I have read one (review linked below) and I have Transcendent Kingdom. I’m disappointed not to see The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi on the list, which I just finished today and is an outstanding novel, I highly recommend.

Passing twinsThe Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (American)- The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Summer by Ali Smith (British)- In the present, Sacha knows the world’s in trouble. Her brother Robert just is trouble. Their mother and father are having trouble. Meanwhile the world’s in meltdown – and the real meltdown hasn’t even started yet. In the past, a lovely summer. A different brother and sister know they’re living on borrowed time. This is a story about people on the brink of change. They’re family, but they think they’re strangers. So: where does family begin? And what do people who think they’ve got nothing in common have in common?

Summer is the unmissable conclusion to Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet.

Torrey PetersDetransition Baby by Torrey Peters (American)- Reese nearly had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York, a job she didn’t hate. She’d scraped together a life previous generations of trans women could only dream of; the only thing missing was a child. Then everything fell apart and three years on Reese is still in self-destruct mode, avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.

When her ex calls to ask if she wants to be a mother, Reese finds herself intrigued. After being attacked in the street, Amy de-transitioned to become Ames, changed jobs and, thinking he was infertile, started an affair with his boss Katrina. Now Katrina’s pregnant. Could the three of them form an unconventional family – and raise the baby together?

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen McMahon (Ireland) – Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage?

David thought so. But when his wife Mary Rose dies suddenly he has to think again. In reliving their twenty years together David sees that the ground beneath them had shifted and he simply hadn’t noticed. Or had chosen not to.

Figuring out who Mary Rose really was and the secrets that she kept – some of these hidden in plain sight – makes David wonder if he really knew her. Did he even know himself?

Consent by Annabel Lyon (Canada) – Saskia and Jenny are twins, alike in appearance only: Saskia has a single-minded focus on her studies, while Jenny is glamorous, thrill-seeking and capricious. Still, when Jenny is severely injured in an accident, Saskia puts her life on hold for her sister. Sara and Mattie are sisters with another difficult dynamic: Mattie needs almost full-time care, while Sara loves nothing more than fine wines, perfumes and expensive clothing, and leaves home at the first opportunity. But when their mother dies, Sara must move Mattie in with her. Gradually, Sara and Saskia learn that both their sisters’ lives, and indeed their own, have been altered by the devastating actions of one man…

Consent is a novel of sisters and their knotty relationships, of predatory men and sexual power, of retribution and the thrilling possibilities of revenge.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – (American) A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet – or what she terms ‘the portal’. Are we in hell? the people of the portal ask themselves. Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die? Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’

As real life and its stakes collide with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (Barbados) – In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers. For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result.

When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope – of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man. And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House is the story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Ghananian/American) – As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.

Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.

Womens Prize Fiction long listUnsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (British) – What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back? Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

Unsettled Ground is a heart-stopping novel of betrayal and resilience, love and survival. It is a portrait of life on the fringes of society that explores with dazzling emotional power how we can build our lives on broken foundations, and spin light from darkness.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Because Of You by Dawn French (British) – Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock . . . midnight.

The old millennium turns into the new.

In the same hospital, two very different women give birth to two very similar daughters.

Hope leaves with a beautiful baby girl. Anna leaves with empty arms.

Seventeen years later, the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge, and the truth starts rolling, terrible and deep, toward them all. The power of mother-love will be tested to its limits. Perhaps beyond . . .

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (British) – 1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness. But there will, inevitably, be a price to pay.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (British) – Piranesi lives in the House.

Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Womens Prize Fiction long list 2021The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig (British) – Intelligent, bookish and hard-working, Hannah is part of a generation that grew up in hope and has tried to escape life in Cornwall’s ugliest coastal town through a university degree, a professional career, and marriage to the privileged Jake. However, her life has gone disastrously wrong. Jake has left her for Eve and, reduced to near penury, she is desperate enough to agree to murder the brutal husband of Jinni, the rich woman she meets in the First Class carriage of the London to Penzance train, in return for having Jake killed.

However, when Hannah turns up at the remote Cornish house where Jinni’s husband is living intending to keep her promise, she meets a filthy, drunken, despairing man living in a house whose misery tells a very different story.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (Ireland) – When you leave Ireland aged 22 to spend your parents’ money, it’s called a gap year. When Ava leaves Ireland aged 22 to make her own money, she’s not sure what to call it, but it involves:

– a badly-paid job in Hong Kong, teaching English grammar to rich children;

– Julian, who likes to spend money on Ava and lets her move into his guest room;

– Edith, who Ava meets while Julian is out of town and actually listens to her when she talks;

– money, love, cynicism, unspoken feelings and unlikely connections.

Exciting times ensue.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (American) – In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her arranged marriage to join an ashram, took a hapless artist for a lover, rebelled against every social expectation of a good Indian woman – all with her young child in tow.

Years on, she is an old woman with a fading memory, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her. This is a poisoned love story. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter.

Burnt Sugar gradually untangles the knot of memory and myth that bind two women together, revealing the truth that lies beneath.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Luster by Raven Leilani (American) – Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up.

Then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young, black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling headfirst into Eric’s home and family.

Razor sharp, provocatively page-turning and surprisingly tender, Raven Leilani’s Luster is a painfully funny debut about what it means to be young now.

* * * * *

That’s it, a long list to look through, some familiar, others not. What looks tempting to you? Have you read any of these already that you’d recommend?

The judging panel will now whittle these 16 books down to a shortlist of 6 novels, announced on April 28th. The 25th winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 7th July.

Happy Reading!

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

A thirty year old woman named Casey rents a tiny room and is soon to be evicted, she’s under a mountain of student debt, prone to crying, having lost her mother quite suddenly, is estranged from her father who tried to turn her into a golf pro as a youngster, an activity she now refuses to have anything to do with.

Casey is a waitress in a restaurant, on her last warning, is using her one month of being eligible for health insurance to have as many tests as possible and is paranoid about a lump in her armpit. And undecided about the two men she is simultaneously dating, both writers.

There’s a sense of life passing her by as she receives wedding invitations from friends, who judge her for not being able to afford to be part of their occasion (friends who’ve given up any attempt at independence or flexing their creative muscle for the safety and security of a man).

She’s spent 6 years writing a novel and is now on the verge of her fragile world crumbling on top of her. It is almost with relief that she contemplates the potential life-threatening lump that might be her escape.

I really struggled to stay with this one and persevered because I’d seen a number of good reviews, so I kept hoping it would improve. And it does towards the end. Although it does feel a little like a fairy tale ending. I guess it just wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be at the time of reading. I’ve long wanted to read Lily King’s earlier book Euphoria, which is in part why I jumped at the chance to read this.

I did enjoy the anecdote about Edith Wharton, scolded by her mother as a child for wanting to be alone to make things up and forbidden to read novels until after marriage. When her mother died, she sent her husband to the funeral and stayed home to write. She was 45 years old and published her first novel the following year.

And some thought provoking words about writing and fear:

All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear.

And this aspect, more of a universal theme here perhaps:

If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way.

And that ultimately is what the journey of the protagonist is about, living in fear and allowing it, nurturing it, holding fast onto it, until she can no more. As she lets go of it, her life begins to change, until she realises, she has nothing to fear.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced a few days ago, you may have heard about it already, but if you haven’t here are the six books that made it through, the winner will be announced on 5 June:

For a summary of what each book is about, refer back to my original post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Rather than repeat the summaries, I’m going to feature here a little about the author and their work (from the Women’s Prize website). I have read and reviewed Milkman, and the one that attracts me the most is Circe.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – (Ancient Greek history written from a female point of view – retelling The Iliad – humans, their egos and wars)

Born in Yorkshire, Pat Barker began her literary career in her forties, after taking a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. She has since published fifteen novels, including the Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the UK’s highest literary honour, the Booker Prize.

I have only read one of her books, The Ghost Road, the third in that trilogy and the one that won the Booker, and sadly it was a hard slog for me which I admit has made me reluctant to try anything else. A quick look at Goodreads tells me that the first book in that trilogy has almost double the number of readers, so probably that would have been a better place to start, than the prizewinning novel.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – (an obsession with black widow spiders leads the author to write a crime thriller about two sisters, one who kills, the other who cleans up after her)

A graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University, following her degree, Oyinkan Braithwaite worked as an assistant editor and has since been freelancing as a writer and graphic designer. She’s had short stories published in anthologies, in 2014 she was shortlisted as a top ten spoken word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam and in 2016 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

This book was popular among readers as soon as it was published, it’s just not my genre although I’ve really enjoyed a number of Nigerian authors and I’m always interested in seeing what new works are coming out from there.

Milkman by Anna Burns – (a young woman tries to be herself in a community that prefers to categorise its inhabitants and gossip about those who don’t conform)

Born in Belfast though now living in East Sussex, Anna Burns drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Milkman won the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

When Milkman won the Man Booker Prize, I wrote this post about reader’s reactions to it and referenced an interesting essay called Gender in Conflict by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado. I bought it immediately and loved it, my review here.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – (a couple in South London become parents and grow disenchanted with their lives)

A British author of Nigerian and English descent, Diana Evans bestselling novel 26a, won the inaugural Orange Award for New Writers and the British Book Awards deciBel Writer of the Year prize. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel, the Guardian First Book, the Commonwealth Best First Book and the Times/Southbank Show Breakthrough awards, and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Wonder is currently under option for TV dramatisation. She is a former dancer, journalist and critic. Ordinary People is her third novel.

An author who I am familiar with and been closely tempted to read, one who is well-known and highly regarded for her evocation of place. It reminds me of Zadie Smith’s NW and her evocation of London through it inhabitants.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – (a young successful couple have their lives disrupted by a false conviction)

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fortunate to have featured on Barack Obama’s reading list in 2018 and Oprah’s book club making it an instant bestseller, it’s been compared to James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk read and reviewed earlier this year.

Circe by Madeline Miller – (rewrite/interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey, from the rise of the feminine perspective)

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles which won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 and was translated into twenty-five languages. Miller holds an MA in Classics from Brown University, taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students; also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and at Yale School of Drama focusing on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. Her essays have appeared in publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR. She lives outside Philadelphia.

I read and enjoyed her debut novel and this one sounds just as good. The female goddesses and characters from many history books have been lying dormant for centuries, allowing others to portray them as less than powerful, now the unveiling of their message has begun to rise as modern women awaken, remember and begin to share ‘herstory’.

**************

Here’s what the Chair of judges had to say about the shortlist:

It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”

Have you read any of these titles, or are you planning to?

Buy A Copy of Any One of These via Book Depository

 

Women’s Prize For Fiction 2019 Longlist

Between 1996 and 2012 it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and between 2014 and 2017 the Baileys Prize for Fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is a favourite literary award of many, awarded annually to an outstanding novel that demonstrates excellence, quality, originality and accessibility.

The Prize has recently evolved to charitable status as The Women’s Prize Trust and now invites anyone who wishes to contribute to its ongoing success, to support it through their donation lead Patron Scheme, which offers varying levels of participation and reward.

Their charitable objectives seek to honour & celebrate the widest possible range of women’s voices and stories from all over the world by:

  • shining a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten women’s stories
  • promoting gender equality
  • supporting literacy, research and educational initiatives to help inspire the readers & the writers of tomorrow
  • providing a year-round digital platform for women’s voices and offering a range of live events, encouraging debate between readers & writers.

After passionate discussion, the judges of 2019 have come up with the following longlist of 16 novels, the Chair, Professor Kate Williams had this to say:

“I am thrilled to share this longlist – sixteen incredible books by a diverse group of women, from the UK and countries across the world, all brilliant stories that sweep you into another world. Each of them have been a privilege to read, and they have taken us into places a million miles from each other, exploring the lives of women and men in so many different but utterly compelling ways.”

I have copied the book summaries below from the Women’s Prize website  and provided title links to Book Depository, if you wish to buy a book (with free shipping). Personally, I have read two, the excellent Man Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns (my review here) and Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies (my review here), which I enjoyed so much, I ordered her historical fiction novel The Book of Harlan.

The Greek myth retellings seem to be in the ascendant, I like that they’ve chosen empowered female heroines, I have a copy of Freshwater, which from the moment I read its premise I’ve wanted to read, so I’ll definitely be reading that.

I’ve read Mexican born author Valeria Luiselli’s essays Sidewalks her novel stands out, as it was born of her experience as a volunteer court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them, the subject of another essay collection Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. In Lost Children Archive, she tells the story of one family, though don’t expect a straight forward narrative, as I recall from reading her previously, she’s an introspective, philosophical meanderer interested in spaces, voids and the edges of things, not a traditional storyteller.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan war whose voice has been silent – till now. Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness history forgot.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton – It is 1910 and Philadelphia is burning. The last place Spring wants to be is in the rundown, coloured section of a hospital surrounded by the groans of sick people and the ghost of her dead sister. But as her son Edward lays dying, she has no other choice. There’re whispers that Edward drove a streetcar into a shop window. Some people think it was an accident, others claim that it was his fault, the police are certain that he was part of a darker agenda. Is he guilty? Can they find the truth? All Spring knows is that time is running out. She has to tell him the story of how he came to be. With the help of her dead sister, newspaper clippings and reconstructed memories, she must find a way to get through to him. To shatter the silences that governed her life, she will do everything she can to lead him home.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other

The Pisces by Melissa Broder – Lucy has been writing her dissertation for nine years when she and her boyfriend have a dramatic break up. After she hits rock bottom, her sister in Los Angeles insists that Lucy dog-sit for the summer. Staying in a gorgeous house on Venice Beach, Lucy can find little relief from her anxiety – not in the Greek chorus of women in her love addiction therapy group, not in her frequent Tinder excursions, not even in Dominic the dog’s easy affection. Everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer while sitting alone on the beach rocks one night. But when Lucy learns the truth about his identity, their relationship, and Lucy’s understanding of what love should look like, take a very unexpected turn.

Milkman by Anna Burns – In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – Ada was born with one foot on the other side. Having prayed her into existence, her parents Saul and Saachi struggle to deal with the volatile and contradictory spirits peopling their troubled girl.When Ada comes of age and heads to college, the entities within her grow in power and agency. An assault leads to a crystallization of her selves: Asughara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves – now protective, now hedonistic – seize control of Ada, her life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and being. Feeling explodes through the language of this scalding novel, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis – or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap?

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li – The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff’s professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father’s homely establishment. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenaged daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, year to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.Set in 1970s communist Romania, Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south-west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark. The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other. Meanwhile, thousands of children are journeying north, travelling to the US border from Central America and Mexico. A grandmother or aunt has packed a backpack for them, putting in a bible, one toy, some clean underwear. They have been met by a coyote: a man who speaks to them roughly and frightens them. They cross a river on rubber tubing and walk for days, saving whatever food and water they can. Then they climb to the top of a train and travel precariously in the open container on top. Not all of them will make it to the border.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden – Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places her in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as religious atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the fifteen years she is enslaved within the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

Circe by Madeline Miller – In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Normal People by Sally Rooney -Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

******

So have you read any of these or are you planning to?

Further Reading

Interview Valeria Luiselli: ‘Children chase after life, even if it ends up killing them’
by Emma Brockes, the Guardian

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat tr. Marilyn Booth #WITMonth

I’m glad The Open Door was brought back into publication, it was a landmark work in woman’s writing in Arabic when it was first published in 1960, an important commentary on the challenges women and girls in so many societies face, a consequence of patriarchy; an effect that is being busted wide open today, forcing transparency, offering support, healing and with hope, gradual change in many countries today. It seems timely to revisit this, or to read it for the first time, as will likely be the case for many.

As Sherif Abdel Samad said in the introduction to his article linked below:

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.”

The Open Door provides its unique view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of both the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her. It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived, judged, which in their course cause her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when really she wants to be able to express herself or explode.

It’s a novel about Layla, her brother Mahmoud, their friends, parents and the Aunt and cousins living upstairs, all of whom have differing opinions and ways of dealing with life, their beliefs on how it should be lived and how one should behave, that make it a riveting read and insight into the debates this novel provoked at the time it was first published.

The Film starring Faten Hamama

Here is Layla’s mother reprimanding her for being outspoken and speaking her mind:

‘How could you say those ridiculous things to Samia Hanim?’

‘I just said what came to mind, and that’s that!’

‘What came to mind? If everyone said whatever was on their the mind, the world would have gone up in flames long ago.’

‘Or whatever they feel – that’s what they should say.’

‘Whatever they feel! That’s for your own private self, not for saying in front of people.’

‘So people should just lie, you mean?’

‘That’s not lying – that’s being courteous. One has to make people feel good. Flatter them.’

‘Even when you don’t like them?’

‘Even when you don’t like them.’

In addition to the turmoil Layla goes through, the advance and retreat, so too does Egypt confront her own coming of age, with the advance of independence from British rule, the inner rebellion against the monarchy and the final agitation that brought about the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

While it’s not an overly politically involved novel, the history of the nation over a ten year period, deftly matches the progress of the young woman as she tries to forge a path for herself, realising how tied to social codes she is, both complies and considers busting out of those expectations, to live life more on her own terms. Her dilemma is adeptly encapsulated in the quote below:

On this solid foundation she stood, after her experience with Isam, and within the bounds of those rules. There she existed, fortifying herself against life, so fearful; and suppressing all the well-springs of spontaneity and lively inquisitiveness that were in her nature. She faced life with a cold face and a colder heart, with chilled feelings, with a studied behaviour the consequences of which she always knew in advance. She constructed a shell of emotional serenity from her certainty that she was acting correctly, that she was perfectly self-sufficient, and that no one could harm her or cause her pain.

Then Husayn passed through her existence and a vibrant current touched her, setting off the sort of animated reactions that anyone who followed the rules and was clever at reckoning consequences would hardly dream of. Layla paused on the bank, observing life’s current as it pushed forward, and something in her heart rebelled. Something was willing her to join the current. Yet something in her mind pulled her back, enveloped her to imprison her on shore. And there she remained.

The men in her life symbolise different models of those options, and they too make choices that will have far reaching consequences, whether they meet societal expectations or choose a path true to their hearts. It can seem simplistic as a reader to see the preferred path, but the reality of lives and the strong influence of parents to raise the family status, often sees young people used as pawns in their determination. This adds to the novel’s intrigue, there is an undercurrent of concern on the part of the reader for Layla’s future welfare, making the book compelling reading, for she doesn’t make decisions the way one might expect.

The final section sees Layla not exactly make her own decisions, but find a way to at least explore her thoughts and desires without the oppression of others opinions, it coincides with a period of war, adding to the perceived danger, now the challenge is survival and participation in the struggle offers her a way through the chaos.

The ending felt a little rushed, and was less coherent as a whole than the rest of the book, it made me wonder if the author had trouble bringing the novel to its conclusion, although that chaotic feeling it generated could also be said to fit with the events that were happening at the time, which were in disarray and dangerous.

Overall, I thought it was excellent, engaging and thought-provoking, particularly by putting a young woman and her confusion in the act of becoming a woman at the centre and demonstrating through the other women, her family and friends around her, the pressures that disrupt that development, that question it, mould it and can sometimes even destroy it.

I hope it gets more widely read and discussed, particularly given the continued struggle that exists everywhere today and to get an inside view from within another culture, to see and understand the universality of these themes.

Latifa Al-Zayyat

Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was an Egyptian writer and political activist born in Damyat. She was a professor of English literature and criticism at the Girls’ College at Ain Shams University from 1952 until her death.

She was Director of the Arts Academy and a member of the Supreme Council for Arts and Humanities, publishing many works on politics, literary criticism, as well as novels, short stories, memoir, and drama. She was also an activist and imprisoned more than once for her intellectual and political stance, her criticism of society and desire to break down taboos. Her literary legacy is important in light of the tireless campaigning she was so active in, that in part perhaps paved the way for those following in her footsteps.

About her novel, she had this to say:

“in the novel, I aimed at crystallizing three levels of significance. The first one deals with the development of the female protagonist, and its related to the second which deals with developments in Egypt at that period. As for the third level, it incorporates a commentary on the values of the middle class and its practices and how they prevent the country from a take off.”

It has been an inspiration for a large number of women who seek to challenge the status quo for women in the Arab world and achieve change. Her novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and she was awarded an International Award of Recognition in Literature in 1996 shortly before death that same year.

Further Reading

Review: Literary Gems – Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door  by Ismail Fayed

Al Jadid Article: Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat By Amal Amireh

Article on the 20th Anniversary of her Death: Dauntless to the End by Sherif Abdel Samad

Click Here to Buy a Copy of

The Open Door

via Book Depository

 

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz tr. Sarah Moses, Carolina Orloff

Usually I read books because I am drawn to them by the premise, by the cultural setting, by an author’s intriguing background and experience which suggests to me they may have interesting insights to explore within a novel.

I hesitated about whether to read Die, My Love because of what I perceived as its intensity, I thought it might be depressing. The reviewer whom I expressed this too, responded:

I would say razor-sharp and brutally honest rather than depressing. No punches are pulled.

She was reviewing it, along with all the other titles long listed for the new Republic of Consciousness literary prize created by novelist Neil Griffiths to acknowledge and celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” published in the UK and Ireland.

When it was short listed for this prize and simultaneously long listed for the Man Booker International 2018, I decided to read it and find out, despite the earlier hesitation, similarly to the feeling I had about reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

We meet a young woman, a university educated foreigner, living in the French countryside with her husband and their small child, another on the way. She is lying in the grass, in 35°C (95°F) summer heat, thinking disturbing, violent thoughts against those around her, while expressing an acute, brutal self-hatred alongside an intense uncontrollable desire.

Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanize the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish.

It’s written in an urgent stream of consciousness narrative, focused on the minutiae of her day, much of it spent waiting for her husband to return from work, observing herself by turn, in her acts of taking care of and neglecting the needs of her helpless son, fantasizing about harming herself.

I throw out the heavy nappy and walk towards the patio doors. I always toy with the idea of going right through the glass and cutting every inch of my body, always aiming to pass through my own shadow. But just before I hit it, I stop myself and slide it open.

It’s a rendition of spiralling out of control, sometimes playing the part of mother, in front of friends on the odd occasion they’re invited to a birthday party or playing the daughter in law at a family gathering, but not too hard, because it is impossible, the insanity too close to be able to sustain any form of denial for too long a period of time.

When my husband’s away, every second of silence is followed by a hoard of demons infiltrating my brain.

If she’s not going crazy from the silence, she’s targeting the weak, aggressing the overweight nurse who comes to tend to the neighbour, acting haughty with the women working in the supermarket, the pizza delivery men, the manicurists.

I yell at them in public. I like to make a scene, humiliate them, show them how cowardly they are. Because that’s what they are: chickens. How come none of them have tried to fight me? How come none of them have called the authorities to have me deported?

As a reader, I can’t help asking questions, like, what is this? Is this postpartum depression? No, this was a pre-existing condition that started before she gave birth, that continued afterwards and seems never to have ended.

Is this the result of leaving her education, her intellectual self behind? Of embracing motherhood? Of being separated from her country, culture, her family, the way of her own people? Those things are never ever mentioned, never alluded too, never missed, there is no nostalgia for the past, only a visceral disgust for the present, a desire for a future where she is taken out, extinguished.

We were only just waking up from the weekend and already we were fighting. At half past eight I let out the first scream, at nine-twenty I threatened to leave, and at nine-fifty I said I’d make his life a living hell. By ten past ten, I was standing like a ram in the middle of the road with my straw hat on, suitcase in hand and flies in my eardrums.

She reflects that even were she to get hit and killed, it would unlikely gain her sympathy, that would be saved for her poor child, left without a mother.

No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life.

She blames desire, calls it a destructive hunger, an alarm, ferocious.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire that is.

I waver between wondering if this is something a woman would experience if the circumstances are created that deprive her of the things she needs for sustenance, or is this a woman creating what she perceives as art, an art form that is designed to shock, to provoke a response in its audience.

In an interview by Jackie Law at Never Imitate, when asked about her inspiration, Ariana Harwicz responded:

Motherhood as a form of prison, a trap, an ordinary destiny. Writing the novel was a chance to escape that.

When asked about herself:

I always say that I was born when I wrote Die, My Love. Before then, I was alive, in the same way that everybody is alive, yet for me that is not really being alive. I had recently had a baby, I had moved to live in the countryside next to a forest. I would watch the thunderstorms, I would go horse-riding, but that was not life for me. And then I wrote Die, My Love, immersed in that desperation between death and desire. Die, My Love comes from that. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.

In a podcast with the London Review Bookshop, she expressed interest first and foremost in the question ‘What is it, to be an artist?’, her response to her own question illuminating:

An artist, is someone is willing to break tradition, convention and transgress outside the norm

This is what she succeeds in doing in Die, My Love. She pursues it with intellectual vigour, with a bold, unapologetic, Argentinian energy that busts out of convention, leaves the old form of language and expression behind, takes her literary weapons into the forest and wreaks havoc on the page and in the mind of the reader.

Note: Thank you to Charco Press, independent publisher of contemporary Latin American literature, for providing an e-book.

Buy a copy of Die, My Love from Charco Press