Sunday, August 04, 2019

St Lucia: Omeros, by Derek Walcott

For the small Caribbean island of St Lucia, I turned to poetry. Omeros, however, is not a typical poetry book, being a narrative in verse of 325 pages. For that reason, I was happy to count it as fiction. Although it is structured almost throughout in three line rhyming stanzas, the rhyme is not obvious. Normally when I read poetry, I linger over the language and read and re-read parts to appreciate them better. Wth prose, particularly novels, I prefer to read straight through, for the story.

In this case, I attempted to read the book as I would a prose novel, but I found that often the language slowed me down, as I paused to ponder a metaphor, or to make sense of a passage where the phrasing to fit the poetic structure obscured the meaning slightly.

The book has been described as a recasting of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting. It is not however, a direct retelling - rather, a new story, or several interlinked stories, in which the author uses mythical tales for their themes and resonances. So we have two Caribbean fisherman, Achille and Hector, vying for the affections of the beautiful Helen, but there is no war fought over Helen - at one point, Omeros (Homer) appears to ask "do men still fight wars" and the answer is yes, but not for love, not for beauty.

The fisherman Achille makes a journey back in time, back to Africa, where he sees the tragedy of the slave trade, but it is not clear whether this is a real or a dreamed journey.

The book shifts about quite a bit and needs close reading to keep track of its shifts - Major Plunkett, an old soldier living on the island with his wife, muses on his past, and old wars in Europe make an appearance, along with London and the peaceful Irish spot of Glen da Lough (whose significance I did not quite follow).

In the end it returns to St Lucia and the hordes of tourists that crowd its villages and beaches, gaping at the local colour and capturing everyday life in photos as "picturesque".

I enjoyed the book but I do feel that the modern reader is unused to the genre of epic poetry, which leaves one somewhat unsure of how best to read it.

Derek Walcott was born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1988.He lived in St Lucia and Boston, and died in 2017. He was also an accomplished painter - the cover images of this book were painted by the author. Omeros was published in 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Nauru: Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru, compiled by Timothy Detudamo

Nauru is a tiny island nation in Micronesia, with a population of around 11,000 to 12,000. That does not allow for a large choice of literature. Fortunately our local library has an excellent Pasifika section, in which I found this compilation of legends and stories, along with some cultural information.

Head chief Timothy Detudamo put this collection together from oral sources in 1938. Nauru has changed a good deal since then. It became very wealthy for a brief time, when western nations descended on it to mine phosphate from centuries of guano deposits. Unfortunately the wealth was largely squandered. These days it is largely known for its use by Australia as a place to house would-be refugees arriving by boat from South East Asia.

Thus the foresight in transcribing these tales becomes even more important. I thought I knew quite a bit about the culture and languages of various Pacific Islands but it turns out that what I knew was really quite small. The islands with which I am more familiar - the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga - are Polynesian islands, but Micronesia is quite different. The names in the book, and the terms that had been left in their native language, looked quite unfamiliar, and there were aspects of the culture that are different to Polynesian culture. For instance, the Nauruans practised fish farming - they caught small fish of a certain species, and used them to stock ponds where they grew them to an edible size.

The stories here are fairly simple on the whole, and somewhat repetitive. Strife between different tribes features strongly. There is a glossary at the back of the book but often the only explanation given is "a type of food" or "a type of plant", which could be figured out from the context of the story, so it rather left me wanting to know more.

Nevertheless, I found this slim volume an intriguing introduction to a culture of which I knew very little. Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru was published by IPS Publications, University of the South Pacific, in 2008.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Seychelles: Echoes from the Oasis, by A R Tirant

My reading has slowed down, and blog posting has slowed down even more, as I have had a busy year so far. I have a few books in the queue for posting and will try to catch up in the next few days.

The Seychelles is a remote group of islands in the Indian Ocean. It was unpopulated until the French settled it, taking with them African slaves to work the plantations there. In 1814 the French and British were battling for trade routes to India, and a treaty was signed, making the Seychelles a British colony.

Echoes from the Oasis is set a hundred years later, in the years just before and at the start of World War I. The country's French Catholic roots are still a strong influence. Anna Savy is a young Catholic girl, the eldest daughter of a plantation overseer. When she is called to assist in the difficult birth of a younger sibling, she swears off the expected marriage. Her way out is to become a nurse, although that is a career usually reserved for lower class women. However,she falls in love with Louis, the son of the plantation owner.

The book is filled with events: a smallpox epidemic that hits the island, Louis's father's amibitions to expand into shipping cause a deadly enmity with another islander, and war also brings tragedy. Still, I thought the book could be shorter with tight editing, as there was a good deal of repetition of Anna's feelings and emotions, and of explanations of the cultural milieu at the time. Catholic angst causes Anna a good deal of trouble. The genre is historical romance and the book felt rather like woman's magazine fiction at times. (I'm not sure if women's magazines publish much fiction these days, favouring stories about "celebrities", but when I was younger, they were full of it.)

Nevertheless, the story was an enjoyable read and I learnt quite a bit about the history of a country that I was not familiar with until now. Apparently this book is planned as the first of a series and it was left quite open-ended, so there was plenty of room for follow-up. There is no "happily ever after" just yet, but perhaps that will come in book two, or book three.

A.R. Tirant was born in the Seychelles in 1958 and worked as a nurse in Victoria Hospital, Mahé (where Anna also worked in the story). She emigrated to England in 1995. I couldn't find a publisher on my copy of the book, although I did find a printer - amazon.co.uk - so it appears that this may be a self-published book. It is also available in Kindle format and was first published in 2014.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Bogota 39: New Voices from Latin America

I can't really count this book for my reading round the world project, as it is not from any one specific country, but it is an interesting overview of younger Latin American writers. Writers selected are not just from South America, but also from Mexico and the Caribbean. And not every South American country is represented - although I tend to forget it, the Guyanas (Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname) are none of them Latin American countries being British, French and Dutch colonies respectively. Also, there is no writer here from Paraguay which suggests that Paraguayan writers are thin on the ground - in fact, the coverage is a bit uneven with the largest group being from Mexico (7 authors) followed by Argentina and Colombia (6 each) and Chile (4). Peru has 3, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay 2 each and Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba 1 each. It is the second such collection being published in 2018 out of the Hay Festival of Literature as a follow up to an earlier collection in 2007.

As for genre there is a wide range. Some are quite realistic, others are futuristic and imaginative. Most are short stories, but a surprising number are excerpts from novels, in most cases not yet published in full in English, which I found on the whole rather unsatisfying, wanting to go on and read the whole thing. And some of the short stories too felt rather fragmentary. Others however, like Diego Zuniga's "Castaways" (Chile), Juan Manuel Robles' "Valentina in the Clouds" (Peru) and Valentin Trujillo's "Forest Where there was Nothing" (Uruguay) were beautifully executed small pieces. I also loved the excerpt from Laia Jufresa's "Umami", but as I had already read the full novel, it was hard to judge whether this really worked as an excerpt.

Only a few of the authors seem to have longer works available in English, and I hope that publication in this collection will lead to longer works being available in the future, as there are certainly many talented young authors represented here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Importance of Stories

Living in such a dangerous and wounded world we need the best community building and peace making wisdom we can get hold of. My experience is that every religion and every culture has gifts to offer for the healing of our divided humanity. It's an ongoing task that requires disciplined listening, compassion and empathy. The death dealing divisions that so distort the human family have visited New Zealand. Stop, look, ponder.

Police Commissioner Bush said: "Let's not imagine the danger is over." He was referring to the day of the horror but the words have a larger significance. The danger is present as long as we live in ignorance of the wisdom, dreams and values of those who belong groups other than our own, as long as we are content to have our lives shaped by bigotry and hatred.

- Dr Keith Rowe, a former president of the New Zealand Methodist Church and of the NZ Council of Christians and Muslims.

For more of his comment see here.

Reading stories from other countries seemed trivial to me sometimes, but less so now. I recall a writer from South Sudan, a Christian nation, writing a story from the perspective of a North Sudanese Islamic fighter. A Kuwaiti woman wrote with sympathy from the perspective of a teenage suicide bomber. And many other writers have given me new perspectives on different cultures. We need to listen to these stories. We do not need to listen to hate-filled ranting. "What is your story, how did you get here" is a very different question to "what is your platform".

Events last Friday came horrifyingly close, geographically. But white privilege is real, and I was never in danger. Sadly that was not true for many fellow residents of my city, who made their homes here, often leaving countries where violence is a fact of everyday life, because they thought it was a safe country.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Mozambique: Woman of the Ashes, by Mia Couto

For some reason, in comments on Ann Morgan's blog, there have been suggestions that Mia Couto is not the best author to read for Mozambique. I'm not sure why. Maybe because he is white, and there is a feeling that authors of indigenous descent would better represent the country?

However I have previously read and enjoyed his books, and besides, after starting on this project, I soon realised that actually buying around 200 books to read was too big a financial commitment (especially in New Zealand where shipping costs from the UK or USA add considerably to the price of most books), so I need the help of the library. Mia Couto it is then, that's what is on our library shelves.

Woman of the Ashes is his latest and while I found it an interesting enough read, I wasn't quite as gripped by it as by some of his earlier books. It is a historical novel, apparently the first part of a trilogy set in 1894 when Ngungunyane, the last emperor of the state of Gaza, has raised an army to resist colonial rule. The book alternates between the voices of Sergeant Germano de Melo, a Portuguese, and the young girl, Imani, who has been appointed to act as his interpreter.

I found the book a little choppy at times. There are flashes of magical realism which come and go in a blink, making it more difficult to get absorbed in the story. I found Imani's part of the story a good deal more compelling than Germano's. While he acts for the Portuguese authorities, he has actually been exiled to Mozambique as punishment for taking part in a rebellion. He tells his story in letters to his superior, and I think this is what distances him somewhat from the reader.

By comparison, the book that I read for Madagascar - Beyond the Rice Fields - I found a much more compelling and fascinating book. However, I enjoyed this one enough that I will probably read parts 2 and 3 when they become available.

Woman of the Ashes was translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2018

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Kosovo: My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

I could have managed without reading a book by a Kosovan author, as it is only a partially recognised state. (It is recognized by 113 UN member nations, but not fully recognized by Serbia, from which it claims independence).

However, this book kept popping up on my radar, and it looked interesting, so when I spotted it on the library shelves I decided to give it a go. The narrator, Bekim, is a Kosovan refugee in Finland, where his family fled when he was a child. He is now living on his own apart from his pet boa constrictor, which he allows to roam his apartment, even though he is terrified of snakes.

Then one night in a gay bar, he meets a talking cat, who moves in with him. What evolves from that meeting is a journey in which Bekim eventually returns to Kosovo to confront his past.

I initially thought that the cat of the title was Bekim's companion, the talking cat. But nowhere in the book is he mentioned by name, and there are other cats - the small black cat who becomes the companion of Bekim's mother, Emine, after she leaves her husband, and the cat that Bekim briefly adopts in Kosovo, although cats are despised animals there. It seemed in the end that the cat of the title is a metaphor for the whole of Yugoslavia, although it would be hard for me to put the comparison into words, as to how the narrator is explicitly comparing his troubled country to a cat.

This is the story of Bekim's mother, Emine, as much as it is Bekim's story, from her marriage at the age of 16 to a young man who is handsome and wealthy, but whom she scarcely knows. Despite being unsure at first, I found it thoroughly absorbing.

Pajtim Statovci himself left Kosovo for Finland at the age of two, which made me have reservations about the suitability of this book to represent the country. Nevertheless, it is a book as much, or more, about Kosovo as about refugees in Finland.

My Cat Yugoslavia won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize in the category Best Debut, in 2014. It has been translated into 11 languages and was published in English by Pushkin Press. It was translated from Finnish by David Hackston.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Oman: Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi

Like Kuwait, Oman has changed rapidly in recent decades as it emerged as an oil-rich nation. Economic change was accompanied by societal change, and this book traces the stories of one family during these changing decades.

It is focused on Azzan and Salima's three daughters - Mayya, Asma and Khalwa. Mayya has a secret love, who shows no interest in her, so she resigns herself to accept marriage to another man. Asma marries from a sense of duty, while Khalwa waits years for the cousin to whom she believes herself betrothed, who has emigrated to Canada where he lives, unbeknown to her, with another woman. Their lives and loves are richly depicted. But this is not just the story of the three women, but of the men of the family too, and of their other relationships. We learn of Azzan's harsh childhood, and of Mayya's husband Abdallah's life, and love for her, which is not returned.

Azzan has a secret relationship with a Bedouin woman Najir bint Shaykha (Qamar - the moon). The title of the book seems to reflect the idea of women as celestial bodies, or perhaps celestial bodies as women. A quote from an old book says "Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world." And throughout the book this idea of celestial bodies gives resonance to the events that take place.

I enjoyed following the lives of the family members over several generations, and discovering lives that are richer and more complex than westerners with a superficial knowledge of Arab countries might imagine. In particular, although the three sisters were clearly expected to marry and to be subject in many ways to their husbands, the book reveals them to have greater autonomy than the reader might at first think.

Jokha Alharthi has written children's books, short fiction, and three novels in Arabic. She teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and has completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh (There are many quotes from classical Arabic poetry throughout the book).

Celestial Bodies won the 2010 Best Omani Novel award. It was translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth, and published in Britain by Sandstone Press in 2018, with support from the Anglo-Omani Society and Creative Scotland.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

El Salvador: One Day of Life, by Manlio Argueta

One Day of Life is a shocking book, and although it is set around the time of its publication in 1980, it seemed very relevant as the news talks of caravans of refugees from Guatemala heading for the United States border, and of American pressure for a change to the political regime in Venezuela.

In 1980 El Salvador was ruled by a brutal right wing government, backed by the United States. There had been fifty years of military rule. Fear of Communism seems to have been behind the US intervention, but this book suggests that for the majority of the peasants, it was not a political leaning towards Communism that motivated their resistance to the military regime, but a simple desire to have enough to eat and to feed their children.

The main narrator of the book is Lupe (Guadalupe), the matriarch and grandmother of a peasant family. The book follows her day from 5.30 a.m when she gets up and starts her chores, through to 5 p.m when the events related come to a resolution of sorts. From time to time, the point of view shifts to other characters, including her daughter Maria Pia, granddaughter Adolfina, and "the authorities" who are in fact, young peasant boys recruited to do the dirty work of the regime. And the action is not strictly limited to one day, as Lupe reflects on the events that have led to this day, and the hardships that the peasants experience.

Although there is a resolution, there is no happy ending. But Lupe endures her hardships with a sort of resignation. As the book says "better not to keep on thinking because it can embitter one's life".

One Day of Life was banned in El Salvador because of its negative view of the government, and the author had to go into exile in Costa Rica where he lived from 1972 to 1993 before returning to El Salvador. It was translated from Spanish by Bill Brow and published by Vintage International.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Greece: Achilles' Fiancée, by Alki Zei

I was surprised how few books from modern Greek authors were in our library, but I had a couple marked on my "to be read" list. And then this turned up on the new books display, so I decided to give it a try.

At the start of the book the narrator, Eleni, is on a train in Paris with her friends Eugene, Panos and Stephanos. This train, however, is a film set and the friends are working as extras. Eleni recalls her first long train ride, Athens to Piraeus, and then other train rides, as over the course of several weeks, the filming continues.

The Achilles of the title is a guerilla, leader of the resistance against the German occupiers of Greece during World War II, and later against the British and against the Greek government during the civil war that followed. Eleni was known to all the resistance members as "Achilles' fiancée". The book follows her story through times of imprisonment in Greece, exile in Tashkent where Greek political refugees fled, then to Moscow and eventually Paris where the book is set, sometime after the right wing military coup in Greece in 1967.

But Eleni, though a communist, grows from a young girl following what she is told, to a woman who thinks and acts for herself, and does not blindly follow the party line, even when pressured to do so by Achilles.

For a short time, I found the structure of the book a little confusing. However it quickly became clear that during breaks in the filming, Eleni is in the present as she chats to Eugene, and while the filming is taking place, she is remembering the past. The words "cut" and "sound camera action" clearly delineate the time changes. I quickly became absorbed in the story and was fascinated both by the personality of Eleni and by the events in the modern history of Greece about which I had only a vague awareness previously.

Achilles' Fiancée was first published in Greece in 1987. This edition was translated by Anatoli Fitopoulou and published by Bookboom in 2015.

Alki Zei was born in Athens in 1925. Her books are mainly based on her personal experiences, and she herself spent time as a political refugee in the Soviet Union and Paris. While the book is semi-autobiographical, however, it felt universal in the humanity and stories of the characters, both the main characters and the many others who form part of their story.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kuwait: The Hidden Light of Objects, by Mai Al-Nakib

When I can find only one book from a particular country, the quality can be a bit hit and miss. That wasn't a problem with Mai Al-Nakib's luminous short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects. Ten "vignettes" alternate with the ten stories in this collection, which give a vivid picture of life in Kuwait as it develops from a traditional fishing village into a cosmopolitan oil-exporting nation, and then, with the Iraqi invasion, becomes a place of horror and war, and increasing fundamentalism.

There are objects a-plenty to carry the weight of the title. In "Chinese Apples" a young girl collects story objects - objects about which she spins imaginative tales which she relates to her younger sister. The story is a lamentation for the loss of her mother, the loss of innocence. In "Amerika's Box" another young girl, named in gratitude for America's role in resisting the Iraqi invasion, has a box in which she collects objects that represent America to her. But her name gradually becomes a liability as attitudes towards America change, particularly after 9/11. And there are many more significant objects in other stories - a compass, a diary, a stamp bearing the image of an elephant, a straw hat with a red ribbon.

While these stories are set against a background of Islam, it is a far less intrusive presence than in books I have read from other Middle Eastern countries. The characters in these books have an abiding interest in the wider world, in literature, culture, music and so on from all around the globe. If the young girls take up wearing the burqa, it is with reluctance and under pressure from an increasingly fundamentalist school and social environment. One senses that the author, too, has a liberal outlook on life.

Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait in 1970. She holds a PhD in English literature from Brown University in the US and teaches postcolonial studies and comparative literature at Kuwait University. The Hidden Light of Objects was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and won the 2014 First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

It's been a while since I posted here and in that time I have read far less than usual. I have been involved in house hunting and currently with one home purchased and one not yet sold, I have two gardens to maintain. Plus, I have been reading some books that are not related to my "Round the World" project. And then there was Christmas..

Still I do have a few books to catch up on reviewing, and this slim volume from South Sudan is one of them. South Sudan only became an independent country in 2011,, and the book was published in 2013 so it was fairly quick off the mark. However it is now out of print and hard to locate, and I haven't come across any alternatives. The conditions there are likely to make it difficult for anyone to publish a full length novel for some time.

There is an interesting introduction written by the editor, Nyol Lueth Tong, who was born in South Sudan but later became a refugee in northern Sudan and Egypt. At the time the book was published, he was at Duke University in the United States.

In the introduction he says "The North has been painted as Islamic and Arabic, while the South has been characterized as Christian and African, and regionally part of East Africa... In reality, however... in the South, more than sixty languages are spoken, and although both Islam and Christianity are practiced, local belief systems dominate the spiritual realm. Moreover, the last several decades of war have forced millions of Southerners to flee their homes... South Sudanese culture, in other words, is a strikingly hard to define thing."

It may be hard to define, but this collection makes a strong contribution towards introducing it to the world. It is to be expected that many of the stories focus on conflict, although unexpectedly, one, "Holy Warrior" by David L Lukudu takes the viewpoint of a soldier for the North Sudanese army. Others show the life of women and teenagers displaced by the fighting. Romantic relationships also feature in several of the stories.

A couple of pieces were different from the rest. "Lexicographicide" by Taban Lo Liyong is an unusual experimental piece which discusses the writing of a dictionary of the Zed language, the language of a fictional island of 125,000 people. The other piece, which ends the volume, is in verse. "Tall Palms", by Arif Gamal, is an excerpt from a longer work "Morning in Serra Mattu: A Nubian Ode". It is a narrative and lyrical work featuring a large boa constrictor, and forms a satisfying contrast to the fighting in the rest of the book.

"There is a Country" was published in 2013 by McSweeney's in San Francisco.