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.