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Friday, March 19, 2021

Argentina: The Adventures of China Iron, by Gabriela Cabezon Camara

This is another book I came across by chance in our local library. Since I keep reading books from countries that I have already read one book from, it's going to take me a while to complete the list of countries. But I don't like to pass up an interesting looking book, and this is very different from the first book I read from Argentina (which was a Latin American tinged fantasy). This one is a historical novel. The heroine, China Iron, is the very young wife of a man who is the hero of an epic poem which is a "foundational gaucho epic" - Martin Fierro. China does not have a name of her own, having been brought up as an orphan by "La Negra" and never dignified with a name. (China is a generic term for women). The surname she takes, Iron, is the English translation of Fierro. When her husband is conscripted into the army, China sets off on a wagon journey across the remote pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a Scottish settler who is also looking for her husband. Together they have many adventures and eventually are reunited with their husbands, although there is a big twist to that. As Liz educates China in the ways of the British Empire, and they observe the wonders of Argentina's rich flora and fauna, China grows in knowledge and confidence. I enjoyed the book enormously, but thought that parts were rather simplistic and one-sided, for instance the depiction of the Indians with whom the women and their husbands eventually settle - peace-loving, in tune with nature (and knowledgable not only about the nutritional uses of plants but also about recreational drugs), in some ways like idealised seventies hippies. Then I realised that the point of the novel is that it subverts the epic poem "Martin Fierro", and therefore is only one half of a conversation, the poem providing the other half. So its one-sided view makes perfect sense. The Adventures of China Iron was translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, and published in Edinburgh in 2019 by Charco Press. Gabriela Cabezon Camara was born in Buenos Aires in 1968. She has published a number of novels and collections of short stories. The Adventures of China Iron was selected by The New York Times as one of the best novels published in Latin America in 2017.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Samoa: Freelove, by Sia Figiel

Despite the glowing blurbs on the back of this book, it is likely to prove highly controversial. It is the story of a relationship between Ioage and Inosia (Sia). Sia narrates this story (apart from a small section at the back which is in the form of letters between the two), and she makes it clear very early on that their relationship is forbidden. But the reasons for this are different in traditional Samoan culture and Western culture. In the Samoan view, Ioage is her brother, and therefore their relationship is incestuous. In fact, he is the son of the village chief and this is what makes him her brother - it appears that all boys in the village are considered brothers to the village girls, and they must go outside the village to marry. This makes a good deal of sense to prevent inbreeding. However, although mentioned, it is somewhat glossed over that Ioage is also Sia's teacher. She is seventeen and a half, and presented as a very mature young woman, who knows her own mind, and takes a very active part in developing their relationship. I would find it very troubling to give this book to a teenage daughter, as no matter how mature a seventeen year old might think they are, the notion that a relationship with a teacher is acceptable (and beautiful and sensuous, not to mention a meeting of two very intelligent minds, as it is presented here), is a deeply problematic one. I find it strange that this does not seem to be mentioned in reviews. That aside, the book is well written - lyrical and sensuous. There is a lot of sex in the book. And also a lot of explaining. Ioage's natural role as a teacher makes the explanations of traditional Samoan culture seem natural, coming from him, and not an unwiedly chunk of exposition inserted into the narrative. Really, not very much happens apart from a passionate relationship, most of which happens in one day. One aspect I found a bit unrealistic was that when Sia leaves and goes to the United States to study, the fac that she is unmarried, pregnant, and deeply missing her lover does not seem to impact on her studies at all, in which she succeeds brilliantly. So - a number of caveats, but probably worth reading for the insight it casts on Samoan culture. Freelove was published by Little Island Press in 2018.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jamaica: How to Love a Jamaican, by Alexia Arthurs

This is a debut collection of short stories by Alexia Arthurs, who was born and raised in Jamaica and mvoed to Brooklyn, New York with her family when she was twelve. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In the first couple of stories, I believed that it would be a collection focused on young female characters who, like the author, were Jamaican migrants to the United States. But by the end of the collection, I realised that the author's range is quite a bit more than that. Her narrators are young and female, young and male, older and female, older and male. Some are those who have emigrated, some are those who have remained behind in Jamaica, and some have emigrated and then returned. The tensions between the generations, the older and the younger, are perfectly depicted - both the love and the exasperation and misunderstandings. The book like the meals described, is spiced with Jamaican flavours. I enjoyed it more and more as I read on. I look forward to seeing what the author might come up with next and am hoping for a full length novel. How to Love a Jamaican was published in the US by Ballantine Books and in the UK in 2018 by Pan Macmillan.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Kenya: The Perfect Nine, by Ngūgi wa Thiong'o

If I had a deadline for this project, then this would be a much better book to read for Kenya than the one I read previously. This is largely because it is short, being an adaptation as a verse epic of the story of Gīkūyū and Mūmbi, an origin tale of Kenya. It is also, however, a delight to read something that is entirely embedded in indigenous culture, and has nothing to do with later histories of colonization and exploitation by the west. As the author explains, the Gīkūyū people trace their origins to Gīkūyū (man) and Mūmbi (woman). They surveyed the lands around from the summit of the snow capped Mount Kenya. From there, they made their home in a place called Mukuruweini. Their ten daughters were called the Perfect Nine. Supposedly God provided ten suitors for the ten daughters,and the author's interpretation arises from his question: where did the Ten suitors come from? He imagines a larger number taking part in various tests, until only ten remained. The tests which the suitors had to undergo were not opportunities for them to show their manliness to passive and helpless women. The daughters had grown up having to fend for themselves and were capable and self-reliant. In this story, they take as large a part in the quest as do the suitors, and rescue the men just as often as the men rescue the women (perhaps more so). In particular, the disabled tenth daughter, whose legs have not grown with the rest of her body, is nevertheless a better marksman, more skilled with the bow and arrow, than any of the men or any of her sisters. The epic was written first in the author's native Gīkūyū language, and self-translated into English. Since the musicality of the language is vital to verse, I found myself wondering how it sounds in its original form. In English, I found the language a little pedestrian at times, but the story fascinating. Ngūgi wa Thiong'o was born in Limuru, Kenya in 1938. He has written many novels, plays, memoirs and essays and has received 13 honorary doctorates among other awards. He is currently distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. The Perfect Nine was published by The New Press, New York in 2020.