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

Top 10 Books by Women In Translation #100BestWIT

Meytal Radzinski, the founder of #WITMonth, an initiative to encourage people to read more books by women that have been translated from another language, therefore promoting diversity, has asked readers to share their top 10 ten books by women writers in translation.

I initially shared mine in a thread on twitter, but since not everyone uses twitter, I thought I’d share my ten reads here as well before #WITMonth starts (August 1st) and if I can manage it, I may even share a picture of the pile of books from which I hope to read during August.

So here are my top 10 reads of books by women in translation, with links to my reviews, not in any particular order, although I have to say the first probably is my absolute favourite.

My Top 10 Books by Women in Translation

1. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart (Guadeloupe) tr.Barbara Bray (French)

– the life of Telumee, the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. My Outstanding Read of 2016.

“a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions”

2. Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)tr. Richard Philcox (French)

– essays of her early years in Guadeloupe, her education, and growing awareness of her ignorance of literature from the Caribbean & her own family history, when she moves to further her studies in Paris.

The ideal introduction to her many wondrous novels, including her masterpiece, the historical novel Segu and the novel of her grandmother’s life Victoire, My Mother’s Mother.

3. Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden (Russian)

– an historical novel inspired by the author’s grandmother’s memories of exile in a Russian gulag (labour camp), published in English 100 years since the gulags first began in Russia.

The novel  follows the story of a young woman for whom exile is a kind of emancipation, freed from the tyranny of marriage, she finds a new role and skills despite the hardship, and experiences genuine love for the first time.

4. The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi (Iraq) tr. Luke Leafgren (Arabic)

– Slightly surreal, nostalgic, deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of childhood and early youth lived in the shadow of war.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

5. Disoriental by Negar Djavadi (Iran) tr. Tina Kover (French)

– the story of a family forced to flee Iran, a family history, a modern young woman now living in France, sits in a fertility clinic but something about her situation isn’t as it should be, she reflects on the past, while waiting to control the outcome of her present, a clash of the old and the new.

“That’s the tragedy of exile. Things, as well as people, still exist, but you have to pretend to think of them as dead.”

6. So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ (Senegal) tr. Modupé Bodé Thomas (French)

– an epistolary novella, a letter from a widow to her best friend, reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, unable to detach from memories of better times, a lament.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

7. The Complete Claudine by Colette (France) tr. Antonia White (French)

– Claudine at school, in Paris, in Marriage and with her friend Annie, the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom vs the the slap in the face of an approaching adult, urban world.

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

8. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata (Arabic)

– an Egyptian woman is imprisoned for killing a man, soon to be executed. Nawal El Saadawi gains permission to interview before her death. A spell-binding tale of lifelong oppression & desire to be free of it, told with compassionate sensitivity.

The idea of ‘prison’ had always exercised a special attraction for me. I often wondered what prison life was like, especially for women. Perhaps this was because I lived in a country where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences’. My husband had been imprisoned for thirteen years as a ‘political detainee’.

9. Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith (Korean)

– the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980 witnessed from multiple perspectives, an attempt at understanding humanity.

At night, though, when all the grown-ups were all sitting in the kitchen and I knew I’d be safe…I crept into the main room in search of that book. I scanned every spine until finally I got to the top shelf; I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.

10. The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) tr. Shaun Whiteside (German)

– living behind an invisible wall, alone, with a few animals, a stream of consciousness narrative of one woman’s courageous survival, using the feminine instinct .

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece.

If you have a top 5 or 10 to share, or even just one favourite, share it on twitter or instagram using the hashtag below:

Women in Translation 2018 Summary #WITMonth

During August I was back in reading mode after a busy period, so here is a brief impression of the books I read for Women in Translation month, an annual reading challenge I participate in as it fits appropriately with the kind of books I like to discover, those coming from countries and cultures other than Anglo, originally written in another language.

The reason they are highlighted in August is an attempt to raise awareness of the very narrow choice we give ourselves by only reading books in English, or from one’s own country and to highlight the fact that even when we do read outside our first language, the majority of books published, promoted and reviewed are written by men.

WIT Month is an attempt to redress the balance, and the hope is that publishers also respond by making more of an effort to seek books from voices that are little seen in print.

So this was my stack of possibles, there were eight books to choose from, I read six of them and I’m still reading the seventh (being back in another busy period, it may take a while to finish).

I read three books translated from French, one from German, one from Arabic (Egypt), one from Turkish and the one I didn’t read Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (I have read and enjoyed her novel The Door) was originally written in Hungarian.

Here are the summaries below, click on the title to read the full review:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal      🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Wow, this was a novel like other, translated from the French, embracing long descriptive, metaphoric passages, as it navigates 24 hours in the life of a young surfer, through snapshots of all he comes into contact with, or those whose lives will be affected by what has just happened to him. It is unique, original, dramatic, insightful, gut-wrenching at times and stays with you for a long time after, due to its thought-provoking subject.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s father had a heart attack, putting the writing on hold  sent her thoughts to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck     🌟🌟🌟

One I’ve tried to read over the years, but never got past the first few pages, this time I succeeded, though wasn’t wowed by it. A German novel focusing on a property by a lake, which we are reminded in the opening pages has been there for millions of years, since the glacial age.

The chapters that follow highlight aspects of the lives of a few human dwellers over a period of about one hundred years, shadowed by the tumultuous history of a landscape and the psyche of those who’ve tried to live in and control it.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

I’m no sentimentalist, but when this one abruptly finished, a little salt water leaked from my eyes, witnessed by my 15-year-old son, staring at me in disbelief. It’s brilliant.

A woman sits in a Paris fertility clinic and spends the entire book giving up little updates on what that is all about, while she reflects on her childhood and upbringing in Iran, the lives of her parents, her gender confusion, her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives, the blue-eyed gene they all carry, the political activism of her parents, which would send them across the Kurdish mountains to exile in France via Turkey.

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat      🌟🌟🌟🌟

A unique and riveting view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her.

It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived and judged by her peers, family and society, causing her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when she really wants to express herself or explode. Which path will she choose?

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.” Sherif Abdel Samad

Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain      🌟🌟🌟🌟

Another light-hearted novella from one of my favourite French authors for humorous literature, this time he makes a parody of the newly introduced smoking laws, shining a hazy light on the reactions of some members of French society to the law and their efforts to avoid cooperating with it.

One man in particular seeks out a hypnotherapist and then wishes to undo the effect. It’s a laugh-out-loud entertaining read that will delight fans of The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü       🌟🌟🌟

It reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to understand through what she has left behind.

It’s a theme I’ve noticed recently, the lack of understanding from only knowing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.

The story is told in the shadow of a period of Turkish history that traverses the Ottoman period to the Republic and beyond, across three generations of women. A little disjointed with the change in narrative perspective,  but a thought-provoking and informative read.

“The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.”

Hannah’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson

Another story of three generations of women, this time in Sweden and how the environment and attitudes of their community affected the way they dealt with life’s challenges as perceived by their daughters.

Here, a grand-daughter looks back and tries to understand her grandmother, digging into questions never previously asked, ( now demanding of her dying mother) wondering what had been behind the mask this fearful woman presented and how that might have affected her own mother, set against a history of people living on the border of Sweden and Norway from the late 1800’s until to the present.

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

And finally the book I am reading now, the author’s debut novel, an autobiographical, philosophical novel on the human condition, said to have been written as an act of revenge against the women who came between the author and her long time partner Jean-Paul Satre.

The novel’s main character, Françoise, is based on de Beauvoir, and Pierre a thinly disguised Sartre. A younger woman, Xaviere, enters their lives as they form a ménage a trois. Xaviere is a mash-up of sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz.

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Have you read any good novels by women in translation recently? Or any of the above?

Do any of those above interest you?

Buy Any One of these Books via Book Depository

Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson tr. Joan Tate #WITMonth

In its original language the title was Anna, Hannah och Johanna. The title in English is misleading, as I read Hanna’s story and she continued to have one boy after the other, I wondered when she was going to have time to have those daughters, until I realised it was a generational reference.

Hanna has one daughter, Johanna, a name that carries its own story and past, before she is even born, one of the reasons she is closer to her father in her early years. Johanna would also have one daughter Anna, it is she who begins to narrate this story, she visits her mother in hospital, desperate to get answers to questions she has left it too late to ask.

She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.

Anna knows she is being demanding like a child, willing her mother to understand and respond, reprimanded by the care staff for upsetting her, for although she can’t respond, she remains vulnerable to the joys and anxieties of those around her and powerless to prevent the dreams that carry her each night back to the world of her childhood, that place her daughter is now desperately trying to access.

Anna finds an old photograph of her grandmother Hanna and recognises similarities she’s not been aware of, she remembers her briefly and recalls asking her mother:

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

The discovery of the photo and the recognition it awakens in Anna gets her thinking about the lives of all the women in her family, that by tracing the past and understanding the circumstances and decisions they had to make, she might better be able to navigate her own life, rather than blaming the relationship she is in for her misery.

The narrative then shifts back to Hanna’s childhood, born in 1871, she was the eldest of a second group of children born, the first four died in the famine of the 1860’s.

What the mother learned from the previous deaths was never to get fond of the new child. And to fear dirt and bad air.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Hanna and her life and this is where the novel is at its best, immersed in the struggle of Hanna’s early years, its tragic turning point and the situation she is forced to accept as a result. Circumstances that will become buried deep, that nevertheless leave their impression on how she is in the world and impact those daughters indirectly.

It is also in this section we learn how difficult life was for so many families on the border region between Norway and Sweden and the political discontent that existed at the time. People who had lived together peacefully, intermarried and seemed to be as one, as republican issues arose, discrimination added another layer to the challenges in their lives and became another reason for people to move on.

The mid-section comes back to reveal more of her grand-daughter Anna’s adult life, charmed by a man with womanizing tendencies, but of a generation that refuses to accept an unbearable situation, one where women are able to be financially independent and greater decision makers, though not necessarily fulfilled or happy with their lives.

Naturally I thought it was love driving me into Donald’s arms. In my generation, we were obsessed with a longing for a grand passion. Hanna, you would’ve understood nothing whatsoever about love of that kind. In your day, love hadn’t penetrated from the upper classes to the depths of peasantry.

Finally we learn more about Johanna’s life with her husband Arne, the good fortune that eventually came into her life, the trials that would follow, of a different nature than her mother’s, though not so far from her grandmother’s.

The second half of the book was less memorable, possibly because Hanna’s story created such a strong sense of place and life in that era was full of dramatic events which underpinned the development of all the characters around her. When the family moves to Gothenburg, to the city and its ways, when the automobile arrives and travels shortens distances, when life became modern, it tended to become more uniform, less distinct.

Marianne Fredriksson

Marianne Fredriksson in the opening pages of the novel reflects on something she learned at school, when Bible studies were still part of the curriculum, that the sins of the fathers are inflicted on children into the third and fourth generations. She felt that was terribly unjust, primitive and ridiculous, growing up, the first generation to be raised to be ‘independent’, those who were to take destiny into their own hands.

Then as knowledge developed and understanding of the importance of our social and psychological inheritance grew, those words began to acquire new meaning, and though there were none that spoke about the actions of mothers, here she found it to have more meaning.

We inherit patterns, behaviour and ways of reacting to a much greater extent than we like to admit. It has not been easy to adapt to; so much has been ‘forgotten’, disappearing into the subconscious when grandparents left farms and countryside where the family had lived for generations.

She goes on to say that ancient patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, who have daughters… and that perhaps here too we might find some

explanation for why women have found it so difficult to stick up for themselves and make use of the rights an equal society has to offer.

It’s a book that considers the forces that influence us and asks what might have shaped us more, our personal and/or family history or the generation to which we belong. It gives us a little insight into the way of life and historical challenges of another part of the world.

Buy a copy of Hanna’s Daughters

via Book Depository

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü tr. Elizabeth Maslen #WITMonth

One of the best things about August’s WIT Month (reading literature by women in translation) is the abundance of reviews that come out, that will often be my source of prospective purchases for the year ahead, as there is no better time where there is such a proliferation of titles being discussed.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü is one of those books I came across in a blog post I read in 2017, a post entitled Contemporary Turkish Writers Available in English Translation by Roberta Micallef.

Have you read any novels or books by Turkish women? I was thinking about that as I read these opening words:

Turkish literature is a rich, creative, wonderful treasure trove that is well worth exploring. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share works by extraordinary contemporary Turkish women authors whose works have been translated into English.

I visited Istanbul in 2013 (see my post Ottoman Distractions) and was excited to visit a local bookshop and get some books by local writers, it’s true I had already read quite a few books by Orhan Pamuk and while in Turkey I read his excellent, if somewhat melancholic work,  Istanbul, Memories of a City and I have read quite a few novels by Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour, Three Daughters of Eve and her thought provoking non-fiction essay, The Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity.

Topkapi Palace Library

But what was everyone else in Turkey reading, what other woman writers were writing stories, telling their history’s? Turkey has such a rich culture and history, straddling both the European and Asian continents, its families with strands often reaching back to geographies they’ve had to flee, a gateway between worlds.

The bookshop owner pushed two books into my hands, the classic Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga and an archeological mystery Patasana by Ahmet Ümit. But no books by women authors.

Erendiz Atasü’s novel reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to ameliorate that through what she has left behind. It’s a theme I’ve noticed often recently, the lack of understanding that comes from only knowing or observing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.

Vicdan and her friend Nefise have won state scholarships to university in Cambridge, England. They’ve won them on merit and they are excited by the opportunity presented. They are also part of a political strategy which the author shares when sharing some of the inspiration for the novel, her mother was a recipient of such a scholarship in 1929:

The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.

The girls travel together, taking the boat to Marseille, travelling up to England, later they will holiday in Berlin, a visit that leaves dark impressions, they read in other languages, they mix with young people from many cultures. Nefise is at first tempted to cross lines Vicdan is resolutely against. Vicdan stays strong and true to her intention of gaining her education and returning to Turkey to benefit her country. She recalls the struggles of childhood, her family fleeing their home in the Balkans, her father called on to participate in the first world war, her brothers sent away, the prejudices of others if your accent wasn’t right, or your birthplace.

Nefise receives a proposal of marriage, the young man doesn’t understand her rejection of him:

‘I am a Republican,’ Nefise had said, ‘and you are an army officer serving an Empire.  We have nothing in common.’

Ted had been shaken; he found politics unsavoury. However, while an honourable officer might not be interested in politics, he would not hesitate to die for his King and country if necessary.

‘What country?’ Nefise had said, ‘Is India your country?’

While the narrative begins with girls going off to England, it chops and changes in perspective, telling the story of Vicdan’s family and how events changed their circumstances and destiny, the death of the father, the remarriage of the mother, her brother’s Reha and Burhan sent away to a military academy chosen by their stepfather before the wedding ceremony (a fact Burhan never forgave), their childhood over, while another would begin with the subsequent arrival of a younger half-brother, never truly accepted by his older brothers.

Reading Area in the Palace Library, Istanbul

As the narrative changes perspectives, it is interspersed with the thoughts of the various characters, demonstrating the different attitudes, resentments, all the many things never said, that build a picture of the impact of historical events on a family and the ties that bind them together, no matter what happens.

With this characteristic of writing, it can become both insightful and confusing, insightful as we are taken inside the mind and letters of a character and confusing as we skip back and forth across time.

As the author says, her interest is in:

‘the essence of things that happen,  the reasons for them and the results, the impact they have on individual psyches, the impressions on inner selves, have always been the issues of paramount importance to my mind.’

and on three people whose influence on her heart mind resonate throughout the book:

‘Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose being supplied the sap which has sustained my country’s life; that major poet Nazim Hikmet; and the major writer Virginia Woolf, whose work has drawn me closer to the writer hidden in me’

It was an interesting read for me and I enjoyed the blend of history and perspective and how it impacted the lives of characters throughout the novel. The author captures the influences,  and penetrates the minds of her characters and so begin to understand what they can not, how each generation if formed by their experiences and their hopes are placed in those who inspire them in their youth, but these things are not experienced in the same way as the years pass by, one who was venerated yesterday can become hated by the youth of tomorrow.

I did find the sequence it was written confusing at times, but that didn’t really distract from the overall impression, which was the diversity of backgrounds lived through and that aspiration to build a bridge between different parts of the world and their people and the importance literature has in contributing to that.

 

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat tr. Marilyn Booth #WITMonth

I’m glad The Open Door was brought back into publication, it was a landmark work in woman’s writing in Arabic when it was first published in 1960, an important commentary on the challenges women and girls in so many societies face, a consequence of patriarchy; an effect that is being busted wide open today, forcing transparency, offering support, healing and with hope, gradual change in many countries today. It seems timely to revisit this, or to read it for the first time, as will likely be the case for many.

As Sherif Abdel Samad said in the introduction to his article linked below:

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.”

The Open Door provides its unique view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of both the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her. It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived, judged, which in their course cause her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when really she wants to be able to express herself or explode.

It’s a novel about Layla, her brother Mahmoud, their friends, parents and the Aunt and cousins living upstairs, all of whom have differing opinions and ways of dealing with life, their beliefs on how it should be lived and how one should behave, that make it a riveting read and insight into the debates this novel provoked at the time it was first published.

The Film starring Faten Hamama

Here is Layla’s mother reprimanding her for being outspoken and speaking her mind:

‘How could you say those ridiculous things to Samia Hanim?’

‘I just said what came to mind, and that’s that!’

‘What came to mind? If everyone said whatever was on their the mind, the world would have gone up in flames long ago.’

‘Or whatever they feel – that’s what they should say.’

‘Whatever they feel! That’s for your own private self, not for saying in front of people.’

‘So people should just lie, you mean?’

‘That’s not lying – that’s being courteous. One has to make people feel good. Flatter them.’

‘Even when you don’t like them?’

‘Even when you don’t like them.’

In addition to the turmoil Layla goes through, the advance and retreat, so too does Egypt confront her own coming of age, with the advance of independence from British rule, the inner rebellion against the monarchy and the final agitation that brought about the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

While it’s not an overly politically involved novel, the history of the nation over a ten year period, deftly matches the progress of the young woman as she tries to forge a path for herself, realising how tied to social codes she is, both complies and considers busting out of those expectations, to live life more on her own terms. Her dilemma is adeptly encapsulated in the quote below:

On this solid foundation she stood, after her experience with Isam, and within the bounds of those rules. There she existed, fortifying herself against life, so fearful; and suppressing all the well-springs of spontaneity and lively inquisitiveness that were in her nature. She faced life with a cold face and a colder heart, with chilled feelings, with a studied behaviour the consequences of which she always knew in advance. She constructed a shell of emotional serenity from her certainty that she was acting correctly, that she was perfectly self-sufficient, and that no one could harm her or cause her pain.

Then Husayn passed through her existence and a vibrant current touched her, setting off the sort of animated reactions that anyone who followed the rules and was clever at reckoning consequences would hardly dream of. Layla paused on the bank, observing life’s current as it pushed forward, and something in her heart rebelled. Something was willing her to join the current. Yet something in her mind pulled her back, enveloped her to imprison her on shore. And there she remained.

The men in her life symbolise different models of those options, and they too make choices that will have far reaching consequences, whether they meet societal expectations or choose a path true to their hearts. It can seem simplistic as a reader to see the preferred path, but the reality of lives and the strong influence of parents to raise the family status, often sees young people used as pawns in their determination. This adds to the novel’s intrigue, there is an undercurrent of concern on the part of the reader for Layla’s future welfare, making the book compelling reading, for she doesn’t make decisions the way one might expect.

The final section sees Layla not exactly make her own decisions, but find a way to at least explore her thoughts and desires without the oppression of others opinions, it coincides with a period of war, adding to the perceived danger, now the challenge is survival and participation in the struggle offers her a way through the chaos.

The ending felt a little rushed, and was less coherent as a whole than the rest of the book, it made me wonder if the author had trouble bringing the novel to its conclusion, although that chaotic feeling it generated could also be said to fit with the events that were happening at the time, which were in disarray and dangerous.

Overall, I thought it was excellent, engaging and thought-provoking, particularly by putting a young woman and her confusion in the act of becoming a woman at the centre and demonstrating through the other women, her family and friends around her, the pressures that disrupt that development, that question it, mould it and can sometimes even destroy it.

I hope it gets more widely read and discussed, particularly given the continued struggle that exists everywhere today and to get an inside view from within another culture, to see and understand the universality of these themes.

Latifa Al-Zayyat

Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was an Egyptian writer and political activist born in Damyat. She was a professor of English literature and criticism at the Girls’ College at Ain Shams University from 1952 until her death.

She was Director of the Arts Academy and a member of the Supreme Council for Arts and Humanities, publishing many works on politics, literary criticism, as well as novels, short stories, memoir, and drama. She was also an activist and imprisoned more than once for her intellectual and political stance, her criticism of society and desire to break down taboos. Her literary legacy is important in light of the tireless campaigning she was so active in, that in part perhaps paved the way for those following in her footsteps.

About her novel, she had this to say:

“in the novel, I aimed at crystallizing three levels of significance. The first one deals with the development of the female protagonist, and its related to the second which deals with developments in Egypt at that period. As for the third level, it incorporates a commentary on the values of the middle class and its practices and how they prevent the country from a take off.”

It has been an inspiration for a large number of women who seek to challenge the status quo for women in the Arab world and achieve change. Her novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and she was awarded an International Award of Recognition in Literature in 1996 shortly before death that same year.

Further Reading

Review: Literary Gems – Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door  by Ismail Fayed

Al Jadid Article: Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat By Amal Amireh

Article on the 20th Anniversary of her Death: Dauntless to the End by Sherif Abdel Samad

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The Open Door

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Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover #WITMonth

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could end my review right there, those were the words I tweeted not long after I finished Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental while I was still in the moment of coming to the end of an excellent story of an immersive experience I wasn’t ready to be done with. It was a five star read for me, but I’ll share a little more of the experience to help you decide if it’s for you or not.

The novel is a dual narrative, set in the present and the past, where the protagonist – who for some time is nameless, with little said to explain how she came to be here – is sitting in a fertility clinic, waiting for her appointment. This immediately creates questions in the reader’s mind, as it is made clear there is something unusual about the situation, that she is taking a risk to even be there. This contemporary narrative, slowly builds the picture of who she is and the  circumstance she is in.

This interminable waiting creates an opening for her to reflect and remember, thus interspersed between what takes place in the present, is the story of her family, a long line of Sadr’s, beginning with her parents Sara and Darius, forced to flee Iran, who came to France when she and her two sisters were of school age.

The narrating of family stories, taking us back as far as her great-grandfather Montazemolmolk with his harem of 52 wives, serves to provide context and an explanation for why certain family members might have behaved or lived in the way they did, helping us understand their motives and actions.

The daughter Nour, born with unusual piercing blue eyes, her mother dying in childbirth, the man obsessed with making her his wife, her reluctance to go out being the object of unwanted attention, her children who desire to be free of restriction, the reading of the coffee cups, predicting the sex of the child of a pregnant woman; Uncle Number Two and his secret.

Darius, the timid elder son, sent to Cairo to study law, abandons his studies and pursues a doctorate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Eventually he returns to the family, changed by his studies and experiences and though quiet in person, wields a mighty sword through his journalistic pen and letters to a political regime he detests and chooses not to ignore.

It is a story that spans a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, one that travels through highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual is free to express their opinion and brings no harm, they continue to live within their culture, family and be an active part of their community and society. But when freedom of expression becomes a danger to the individual, the sacrifices that are made stifle and silence them, but don’t always make them safe. Life in exile, without the connections to friends, family, neighbours, reduces these adults to shadows of their former beings, unable to truly be themselves in a foreign culture.

I highlighted so many great passages in reading, but I’ve already passed the book on to someone else to read, so can not share them here yet. It is a reminder of another era, of people who had rich, cultural and intellectual lives, of families who fled persecution, not because of war, but because of their intellectual and philosophical activism and of how much is lost, when a new generation grows up within a culture no longer connected to their past, to their heritage and worse, in a country that has been subject to the propaganda of the media, and perceptions of that culture are tainted by the agenda of politicians and parties, and what they wish their populations to believe about foreign cultures.

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

It is as if she had a crystal ball to look back through the years, through lives she hadn’t personally experienced and discovered events from the past that created an aspect of who she was and would in turn, be passed on and live deep within the yet unborn child she desires to conceive.

Highly Recommended.

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