This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This Mortal Boy is a fictionalised account of a true crime story. A sensitively written account of the life of Albert Black a young man from Belfast, Northern Ireland who arrived in NZ in the 1950’s on a £10 one-way ticket, guaranteed work for 2 years, who never quite fit in and discovered it was a whole lot more expensive to return, if you decided you didn’t want to stay.

His father hadn’t been conscripted but had gone to war anyway, leaving his wife and young son Albert, who survived the Blitz together, an experience that drew mother and son closer than ever. He never attained the same closeness to his father, who returned a different man.

Remembering how it was, the explosions and the fire raids, the people dying or already dead all about their street, the way she had put Albert on a shelf in a closet and held the door shut against him, leaning her body in with all her might, hoping not to be thrown off her feet when the next blast came. He was barely six at the time, still small enough to put in a cupboard and keep him safe.

Belfast had its own problems and New Zealand seemed like an experience that might be good for him, so his parents bought him a ticket and Albert set off dreaming of getting rich and building a fine house for his family.

Some days she looks at her husband and think it is his fault. Then she thinks it is hers for over-loving him, for not wanting to let him go, and her husband seeing that, and thinking he needed the chance to to grow up, to go to a land of opportunity.

Initially he worked in Wellington where he stuck with his new friend Peter, a young man from Liverpool who he met on the boat, they move in as private boarders with a young widow and her children, but the letters from home give Albert  itchy feet; he takes the train to Auckland in search of better paid work to save for his passage home.

He is a gentle, kind lad, one his landlady trusted immediately to take care of her boarding house while she tended to a sick friend. A little lonely he began to frequent a local cafe where he came across a violent young man, who would cause a significant change in his life’s trajectory.

The volatile man called himself Johnny McBride after a character in a Mickey Spillane novel, he was quick to settle any dispute with his fists and feet. Against his better judgement, Albert allowed him to stay a few nights, he overstayed his welcome, their relationship turned sour, ultimately violent, resulting in a death. Albert Black was accused of murder and forced to face a judge and jury unlikely to consider the mitigating circumstances that might have reduced his crime to manslaughter.

Originally meaning ‘fake, false, inferior, worthless’, the term ‘bodgie’ was applied in the 1950s to a male youth distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions and behaviours. The ‘widgie’ was his female counterpart.

A change in government to a more right wing party and its disapproval of youth culture prompted the Mazengarb inquiry into ‘juvenile delinquency’ and the reintroduction of the previously outlawed death penalty. The government took a hard line on what they perceived as immoral youth and its representatives publicly expressed their prejudice against and contempt for outsiders, often blaming them for this wave of moral delinquency.

The offender is not one of ours. It is unfortunate that we got this undesirable from his homeland.

Delivered to every household it also blamed the perceived promiscuity of the nation’s youth on working mothers, the ready availability of contraceptives, and young women enticing men to have sex. Kidman, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers it arriving at her family home and it being quickly removed before it gave them ideas. It is said to have had no observable impact on young people’s behaviour, rather contributing to the sense of moral panic.*

The report, sent to every New Zealand home, blamed lack of parental supervision for juvenile delinquency and advocated a return to Christianity and traditional values. Excessive wages for teenagers, a decline in the quality of family life, the influence of films, comics and American literature all apparently contributed to the problem. The report provided a basis for new legislation that introduced stricter censorship and restrictions on contraceptive advice to young people.

Albert effectively becomes a scapegoat for a violent message they wished to deliver to wayward youth, and with the odds stacked against him, a terrible verdict is delivered.

…in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offence when society commits the deed. Victor Hugo

It’s a tragic story of a young man caught in a moment of history that came down hard on youth and migrants. His case was sensationalised by the media and there were a number of irregularities that are likely to have contributed to the verdict.

More than just a novel, Fiona Kidman has requested and hopes for a posthumous pardon for Albert Black, hoping for the sake of his family that he can be seen in a different way to how history has portrayed him. This work helps create more of a balanced view of the young man, his hopes, dreams and intentions in his short-lived life.

I began the story of Albert’s short life and death because it illustrated a theme that has run through my mind for a long time, a concern for young people who make one terrible mistake and have not only had their own lives changed forever, but that of theirs and their victim’s families, and of the wider society.

This Mortal Boy won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.

Further Reading

Article by Fiona Kidman, Irish Times – Chasing justice for a Belfast man hanged in New Zealand

* NZ History – Mazengarb report released, 20 September 1954

More reviews of Fiona Kidman novels, The Captive Wife, The Infinite Air, Songs From the Violet Cafe

Buy a Copy of This Mortal Boy via Book Depository

N.B. Thank to the publisher Gallic Books, Aardvark Bureau for an ARC (advance reader copy) of this book.

Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo #WITMonth and an Urban Balade in Marseille

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

As you may know, Andrea Levy sadly passed away in February 2019 at the tender age of 62. She was a British author of Jamaican origin who became well-known when her fourth novel Small Island ( 2004) was awarded the Woman’s Prize for Fiction (then known as the Orange Prize).

Her novels explore the experiences of those connected British/Jamaican histories, gaining inspiration from her own family and heritage.  Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), is an intimate portrayal of family life that felt like I was reading about the author’s childhood, depicting the challenges faced by a Jamaican family in 1960s London. Semi-autobiographical, it was clearly inspired by experiences she’d had, growing up the daughter of immigrants in London.

In The Long Song, she delves deeper into her heritage, into the lives of slaves on a plantation in Jamaica, telling it through the voice of July, who we meet as she is birthed and follow as fate intervenes and snatches her from her mother, placing her in the main house, where she becomes the maid to the sister of the owner.

Levy wanted to get inside the world of her character in a way she hadn’t seen done before. To imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings, especially the women. To imagine what they were really thinking, how they would have been feeling, the emotions that were not safe for them to express, that we might imagine by reading between the lines of the slanted narratives that do exist.

What I wanted to explore isn’t in our history books. I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record…When the time you are writing about is two hundred years ago, there’s no one to interview and so the individual  view has to come from the writer’s imagination.

Much of the research she encountered were accounts of perspectives that didn’t at all fit with what she sought to show, planters accounts “of negroes child-like ways” and their wives equally misconceived notions on their “defects of character”.

And what an astounding novel results, a natural development of the author’s work as she  claimed her ancestry and woke to who she was and where parts of her family had come from.

I loved it. It’s unique, she narrates from both the inside and the outside, being in the story and looking back on the story of the life of a girl named July, the daughter of a black slave and a white overseer on a plantation in Jamaica. It is at times crass, confronting and yet slightly tongue in cheek, daring you to continue reading through the discomfort.

Miss July narrates the story as a grandmother looking back at her life, committing it to paper at the request of her son, who every evening reads it and comments. She writes her account of that in the third person, interrupting it in the first person to complain about the demands of her son, or to clarify something she wants the reader to know. She’s having a conversation with you as you read, and I found it entertaining.

Now, reader, no matter what you may have heard Caroline Mortimer declare as the next act in this story, for she gave her  own fulsome account of that day to the militia, several magistrates, lawyers and indeed anyone who ever graced her dinner table, this that I am about to tell you, is the truth of what occurred next within that bed chamber. So not doubt me, for remember my witness still lies beneath the bed.

She removes the blinkers, stepping inside her characters showing them warts and all, making this uncomfortable reading at times, yet perhaps more realistic than most. For even those who have been depicted as well intended (white saviour narratives) were a product of their time and of white privilege.

Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists.

She shares the story with great humour and frequent distaste. No one is immune to her stripping characters bare and showing their true selves. So there’s no indulging flights of fancy, happy endings or gratuitous violence, although there is perhaps one character who manages to rise above the rest, but he was abandoned at birth so he deserves to shine a little brighter.

It’s sad to think her storytelling days have ended, but the three works I’ve read are a brilliant encapsulation of seeing through the lens of a life imagined and lived, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Britain, who came to know and imagine the history and potential lives of her ancestors.

The Long Song was awarded the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It was also adapted by the BBC into a TV series.

Buy a Copy of The Long Song via Book Depository

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

A fascinating read, an insight into a unique way of life by women known as ‘haenyeo‘ on the coastal, volcanic island of Jeju, in South Korea and a well-researched, thought-provoking work of historical fiction.

The novel is structured into chapters of time periods in four parts (Part 1 Friendship 1938, Part II Love 1944-1946, Part III Fear 1947-1949, Part IV Blame 1961), interspersed with chapters that cover four days in 2008, when a family of four from America come to Jeju Island and encounter a now aged Young-Sook, asking questions she turns away from.

The story follows the life of an elder daughter Young-sook, whose mother is the chief of their local collective of ‘haenyeo‘, women divers who harvest seafood (sea cucumber, urchins, abalone, octopus) all year round from the sea floor; they can stay underwater for sustained periods of time without breathing apparatus, wearing cotton garments that don’t protect them from the cold yet they don’t suffer hypothermia. As they rise to the surface, they emit a whistling noise ‘sumbisori’ an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs while also letting the other women know where they are.

The biggest risk is inattention, whether it’s abalone clamping down on a knife or a dangerous current sweeping them away (thus they always work in pairs). Before they enter the sea and when they return to land, they huddle around a fire in a seafront, stone enclosure called a ‘bulteok‘, share information, gossip, give advice and receive orders before going into the sea. Bulteok function as spaces for community life, changing of clothes by haenyeo, protection from weather, work activities such as repairs and storing their catch between dives and training.

In the 1960s, at their apex, there were 23,000 haenyeo women on Jeju, according to the island’s Haenyeo Museum. But now, only 4,300 haenyeo remain; many experts believe this generation will be the last, as young people flee to cities and pollution destroys the haenyeo’s place of work: the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Strait. As of 2017, Jeju was home to only 67 haenyeo under the age of 50. In 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

A Typical Stone Bulteok Enclosure

They practice a form of Shamanism paying their respects to a Goddess, who helps them hold their breath and keeps them safe from danger. At certain times of the year, they hold ceremonies in honour of the goddess of the winds, launching mini straw boats out to sea, making sacrificial gifts of rice and other foods.

Although the Japanese had outlawed Shamanism, Shaman Kim, our spiritual leader and guide, our divine wise one, continued to perform funerals and rites for lost souls in secret. She was known to hold rituals to for grandmothers when their eyesight began to fade, mothers whose sons were in the military, and women who had bad luck, such as three pigs dying in a row. She was our conduit between the human world and the spirit world. She had the ability to go into trances to speak to the dead or missing, and then transmit their messages to friends, family, and even enemies.

Though the islanders live a simple life, they suffer the consequence of being a resting place for occupying forces, initially when the story opens, it is the Japanese military who occupy the island and create a bad feeling.

Young-sook’s best friend Mi-ja is an orphan, her mother died in childbirth and her father was believed to be a collaborator because he worked for the Japanese. She suffers from ‘guilt by association’, the villagers say she will be unlikely to find a good match in marriage despite her good looks. Young-sook’s mother teaches her to become a ‘haenyeo‘ and the two girls become firm friends.

A matrifocal society, it is the women/mothers who are the head of the household, who go to work, to sea, and the men who stay with the children and look after the home, or in some cases leave for the mainland to do factory work. When the girls are around 20 years old (in the 1940’s), they do ‘leaving-home water-work’ off the coast of Vladivostock. Apart from moving to Japan to do factory work, the only other legitimate way to leave the island was to work as haenyeo, diving from boats in other countries. The girls left for nine months at a time. They signed a contract for five years work.

During that time, the world – and not just our island – was shaken. For decades Japan had been a stable – if wholly hated – power on Jeju.

Back on their island, men and boys were being rounded up and conscripted into the Japanese army, sometimes without being given the chance to notify their families. At the end of WWII the Japanese occupying forces are replaced by American forces, and the country conducts it’s own elections, but people are preventing from voting and the incoming political party is mistrusting and treats people badly. Guilt by association leads them to kill indiscriminately, to burn villages, thus people leave in fear. The occupying forces don’t intervene.

This mid-section of the novel is subsumed by the changing political situation and the dire effect on the local population, nearly all of whom lose members of their family. Young-Sook’s family suffer severe tragedy, creating a deep resentment, causing her to abandon her friendship with Mi-ja.

We know that Mi-ja has an unhappy marriage, that she has one son, but with Young-sook’s unforgiving distance from her friend, the narrative around her life is full of gaps, we are witness only to Young-sook’s view, Mi-ja’s story is pieced together in patches until the end.

Rich in detail of the past and of the lives of Young-sook’s family, the story challenges the protagonist and the reader through the revelations of the interspersed four day narrative, when Clara, the young American great-grand-daughter of Mi-ja seeks out Young-sook. These short chapters drip feed the reader with insights into Mi-ja’s family after she left Jeju and bring the story to it’s thought-provoking conclusion.

It’s is a heart-breaking story of island women maintaining a unique tradition and way of life that has made them into unique humans, able to sustain the sea elements like no other and it is also a story of islanders at the mercy of inhumane political and military powers and policies, punished for expressing their opposition, for any form of protest and implicating everyone in their families if they do. It is a wonderful discovery and celebration of female partnership, collaboration and spiritual practice that has survived despite many setbacks, and a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness, and the sad consequence of stubbornly refusing it.

“To understand everything is to forgive.”

Highly Recommended.

 Further Information:

Haenyeo – a day in the life of a 12 year old Korean girl, learning to dive as a haenyeo on the island of Jeju.

Buy a Copy of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

via BookDepository

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

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Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

Article, The Calvert Journal: “Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

Article, Peninsula, Qatar: Russian novel tells story of survival, love in Stalin’s camp

Buy a Copy of Zuleikha via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

Buy a Copy via Book Depository