Friday, March 27, 2020

Liberia: She Would be King, Wayetu Moore

A while back I chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir as my choice for Liberia. I'd rather read novels, though, so when Wayetu Moore's debut novel popped up in the library, I decided to add it to my reading list.

Wayetu Moore was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1985. When she was four years old, civil war broke out. At the time, her mother was studying in America. Her father fled with her and her sisters and hid in a village for six months before her mother was able to send someone to get them across the border. She now lives in America where she teaches at the City University of New York.

She Would be King is a retelling of Liberia's origins which incorporates magical and supernatural elements. It has been described as magical realism, however the author has explained that she is not attempting to fit it into this genre, but is using elements that are traditional to African story telling. It centres round three people who have supernatural powers. Gbessa is born into the Vai tribe, and is considered cursed and a witch because she was born on the day that an old woman died after beating her cat (cats were revered in the Vai culture). Gbessa has startling red hair, and an inability to die, although she feels pain.

Norman Aragon was born in Jamaica to an English father and a Maroon mother. He has the ability to become invisible. He escapes from his English father, and travels to Liberia, where he has heard there is a new colony for former slaves.

June Day is born on a southern plantation to a mother who is a ghost, a dead slave woman who does not know that she is dead. June has supernatural strength, a power which includes the ability to repel bullets and other wounds. He boards a ship for New York, but mistakenly ends up in Liberia.

Norman and June team up to rescue villagers from the predations of the slavers who still terrorize Africa, although slavery has been outlawed in the United States. They meet up with Gbessa, but she is carried off and then abandoned for dead by French slavers. She is rescued and taken into the household of an American settler in Monrovia, where she rises in society, marries and becomes a farmer's wife. Eventually, however, she meets up with Norman and June once more, as the colony is threatened by the outsiders who are still marauding and taking captives, seeing no difference between the villagers of the hinterland and the freed slaves who have settled on the coast.

This is a many layered novel with a powerful and interesting story line. I did feel the telling was a little stilted in places although I could not quite put my finger on why. And in places, the meeting and re-meeting of the three protagonists felt a little contrived. But overall, it is an original and powerful story, and an interesting take on the origins of Liberia.

The edition I read was published in the US by Graywolf Press in 2018. The book was also published in the UK by Pushkin Press in May 2019.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Zambia: The Wild Wind, by Sheena Kalayil

The author draws on her own family history for this story, although she has injected somewhat more drama and conflict into the fictionalised version. Sissy Olikara's parents are teachers seconded from the Indian state of Kerala to work in Zambia. They are living on a school campus outside Lusaka with other expatriate families, Malayalam and Americans. In is 1978, and trouble is brewing. An Air Rhodesia passenger plane is shot down by revolutionaries, bringing uncertainty to the family. In the meantime, Sissy's father has returned suddenly to India, launching a chain of events that has far-reaching consequences.

The book travels backwards and forward in time between Sissy as a child and the adult Sissy, now living in America. She revisits her past, and tries to find out what happened to her father.

I found the story very absorbing and well told. Besides learning more about Zambia, I also found it interesting to learn more about Malayalam society in Kerala, a southern state of India. The author is very good at creating suspense by revealing hints of what happened early on, during the passages narrated by Sissy as an adult, but withholding the detail until much later in the book. This drew me on chapter by chapter, and it is not until nearly the end of the book that all the threads come together in a satisfyingly complete way (although there is still some mystery as to the fate of Sissy's father).

Sheena Kalayil was born in Zambia in 1970 where her parents, like Sissy's in the story, were teachers seconded from Kerala. She attended university in the UK and worked all over the world. She now lives near Manchester with her husband and two daughters.

The Wild Wind was published in Great Britain in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Iran: To Keep the Sun Alive, by Rabeah Ghaffari

I'm beginning to realise that the books I enjoy most by authors from other countries are those where the author left and moved to the west at a fairly young age - say late teens - or at least has a considerable amount of education in the west. (America, Canada, the UK, Australia etc). And they are often female. This is not really surprising, but a bit disappointing - I would really like to enjoy books written by someone from a very different country, who has lived in that country their whole lives, and sometimes I do, but such books seem hard to find.

So we have the book in the previous post written by a Syrian male who lived there most of his life before leaving for political reasons - which I didn't enjoy all that much. (I wasn't alone in this. A review in the Irish Times described it as having "a tone between male porno fantasy and misogyny".)

And then there is the book that is the subject of this review. It is a powerful piece of storytelling that I found myself thoroughly immersed in. Set around 1979 with the Iranian Revolution just around the corner, it follows events in the lives of one extended family. Every week they gather for lunch at the home a retired judge and his wife, Bibi-Khanoom. The characters include their adopted son, Jafar, who never speaks, Bibi-Khanoom's grand-niece, Nasreen, and the judge's brother, a Mullah, Shazdehpoor, the son of his dead sister, and Shazdehpoor's son Madjid.

Madjid and Nasreen fall in love. But he is attracted by revolutionary ideals, and leaves for the city where he falls in with radical students, only to become disillusioned. Meanwhile back in his home town of Naishapur, things are coming to a head, when, on the day of a solar eclipse, an important Muslim holy day happens to fall on the same day as an ancient Persian festival. In this festival young men jump over a fire and chant, "to keep the sun alive". The conflict of the two festivals will prove disastrous for the judge's family.

Framing the chapters set at the time of the revolution are passages describing Shazdehpoor's life in Paris, many years later, when another solar eclipse prompts him to recall what happened so many years ago.

The story is richly layered and full of lyrical prose. The problems of belief are sympathetically described and none of the characters are in the least one dimensional - both the fundamentalist viewpoint, and that of the more liberal members of the family, are given a fair hearing.

Rabeah Ghaffari was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. To Keep the Sun Alive was published in 2019 by Catapult (New York).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Syria: States of Passion, by Nihad Sirees

Although I found this book well-written enough to keep me reading to the end, I can't say that I loved the book exactly. I didn't really feel emotionally connected enough to the protagonist, but other readers may well get more involved than I did.

Perhaps it was because the protagonist was a male and his feelings for the women in the book somehow failed to move me.

The narrator is a manager in the Agricultural Bank in Syria, and one stormy night his car breaks down in the countryside. When he goes to look for help, he comes across a remote house inhabited only by an old man and his mysterious butler, and there over a period of several days the old man relates to him the story of his life, which forms the narrative of the book. The butler however does not seem to want the story to be told and goes to fairly extreme lengths to prevent it.

There are some slightly irritating disclaimers in the early part of the story about how the narrator does not know how to tell a story properly, and he begs for forgiveness if it is not well done.. I didn't really find that that device made me believe in him as a bank functionary rather than a writer, any more than if it had been left out.

That aside, it is an interesting enough story, and the background of Syrian history from the early part of the twentieth century onwards is well described.

Nihad Sirees was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1950. He worked as an engineer, and later became an acclaimed novelist, but under pressure from the Syrian government, left for Egypt in 2012 and now lives and works in Berlin.

States of Passion was first published in Lebanon in 1998. It was translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss and published by Pushkin Press in 2018 with the help of an English PEN Award.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum, by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This is the first novel from Mauritania to be translated into English. The protagonist Rayhana is a young Bedouin girl whose life changes when foreigners arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. Rayhana is attracted to one of them, a young man Yahya, and her life changes dramatically.

I found considerable resonances in this story with the book I read for the Comoros - "A Girl Called Eel". In both stories, a young girl rejects tradition and expectation to forge her own path in life. But this story is much less hopeful than the Comoros story. Rayhana steals her tribe's sacred drum and flees to the city in search of what has been stolen from her (what this is becomes clear as the story proceeds). And yet, while rejecting her tribe's way of life, she does not accept the city way of life either, being critical of the values of both.

I found the story gripping and was hoping for a happy ending almost to the last, but it was not to be. Perhaps in future young Bedouins will make the transition to city life more easily, and indeed, there are hints that it is a good deal more easy for men than for women. This book gives a valuable insight into the lives of the people of a little-known African country.

Mbarek Ould Beyrouk was born in Atar, Mauritania in 1957. He has written three novels. Le tambour des larmes was published in 2015 and won the Amadou-Kourouma Prize in 2016. It was translated as The Desert and the Drum by Rachael McGill and published by Dedalus in 2018.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Comoros: A Girl Called Eel, by Ali Zamir

This is another of the books that I read in 2019 and was slow to get around in reviewing. Of course, this makes it a bit harder as my memory of the story is not fresh. However, it was very vividly written and has stuck with me quite a bit.

The outcome of the book is not really in doubt from the start, as we are introduced to the protagonist, Eel, in the middle of a desperate plight - she is adrift at see and drowning. The rest of the book sets about demonstrating how she got there as she tells her story. Supposedly it unravels in one long breathless sentence. This doesn't make the book as difficult to read as one might think, because in fact there are breaks - paragraph breaks and even chapter breaks, they are just not signalled by full stops.

Eel is an engaging character. She and her sister Rattler are daughters of a fisherman, All-Knowing. They attend high school, but Eel falls for another fisherman, Voracious, and her affair with him sets off the disastrous train of events recounted in the story. It could be a depressing book but in some ways it is strangely uplifting as Eel has a good degree of self-knowledge and self-possession. She lives fully, without regrets and is accepting of her fate without the ending feeling fatalistic.

The Comoros are a small island group about which I knew little, the book suggests that they were formerly a French colony, now independent, although the nearby island of Mayotte (which figures in the story) chose to remain as a territory of France.

Ali Zamir was born in Anjouan in the Comoros in 1987 and now lives in France. A Girl Called Eel (Anguille sous Roche) is the first of his three (so far) novels, was published by Le Tripode in 2016 and won the Prix Senghor. It was translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published in Britain by Jacaranda Books in 2019, supported by an English PEN award.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Marshall Islands: Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, ed Daniel A Kelin

I'm catching up - I have been reading but not posting, so this and the following two reviews are for books I read in 2019 but didn't post until 2020.

Daniel A Kelin lives in Hawaii (the United States) but travelled around the Marshall Islands, a scattered collection of tiny islands and archipelagos, collecting these stories. Unlike the traditional tales I've read from other Pacific nations, gods do not seem to feature in these stories, but there are plenty of supernatural beings , especially demons, and the trickster figure Letao. The sense of humour of the native story tellers is reflected in the frequent ending of the Letao stories - "he went to America, that's why the people there are so smart."

I did wonder whether there exist tales of gods which were not revealed to the editor, as it appears there may have been some cultural restrictions on telling the traditional stories to an outsider. However, most of the story tellers appeared to appreciate the necessity to have the stories recorded in order to preserve them, as the young people of the islands adopt a more Western way of life, and the old oral culture passes away.

I enjoyed these stories, more so than the ones I read from Nauru, as there appeared to be a greater variety. Since they were collected more recently, there are more reflections of modern culture in the stories, although they appear to be still largely traditional.

It seems timely that I came across a news story about the islands just a few days ago. They have been passed around various western nations before gaining their sovereignty - in World War 1 they were a Japanese territory and in 1944 they were taken over by the United States, which used them as a site for testing nuclear weapons.(Most notably, on Bikini Atoll.) It seems that the giant dome built to contain radioactive waste is leaking, contaminating the Enewetak lagoon and thus the food supply of the islanders. Nowhere else in the world has the US dumped so much of its nuclear waste on another country.

Hopefully the problem can be dealt with, and the life of the islanders can continue, including the passing on of their unique culture as expressed in these stories.

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories was published by Bess Press (Honolulu, Hawaii) in 2003.