Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

Buy Farewell, My Orange

via Book Depository (free shipping)

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.

Five Favourite Fiction Reads

I recall stumbling across Chalk the Sun and reading many of the posts, Julie had read many books I loved and many more that I aspired to read. The first review I read there was The Buddha in the Attic, the first time I had heard of both the book and its author Julie Otsuka. Since then, I have been an avid follower of Chalk the Sun. Not only is Julie a talented, observant, evocative writer and reader, she is working on her own book set in France, which many of us are waiting to read!

Photo0650Julie tagged me in the Five Favourite Reads challenge, a near impossible task, so I will share 5 favourites that come to mind spontaneously.

Kimberly, a Bostonian writer living in Rome, also nominated me in the Happy Booker Alternative Book Award and since she’s stretched the rules to choose outside the 2012-2013 year, I’m going to combine these two awards and exercise freedom in choosing.

Whenever I visit Kimberly’s blog, she’s either reading, visiting a European city (known to be inspired to write a short story as a result), winning prizes for those excellent short stories, or planning to go to the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. This is a blog to linger in and be inspired by.

Thanks also to writer Deborah Brasket of Living on the Edge of the World for nominating this blog for the Inspiring blog Award and to Red Headed Stitcher who has nominated me in the past for the Sisterhood of Bloggers award and more recently the Liebster Award. I’m not too good at participating in awards, but thank you to all those who passed them on to me, I appreciate every gesture.

First, five out of too many bloggers whose posts I look forward to reading, whose exchanges I appreciate and whose favourite books I’d love to know (no obligation though):

Five Great Blogs

ReadEng Didi’s Press – lives and works in the north of France, loves books and the English language, sound familiar?

Three Hundred Sixty Five – it’s an ambitious challenge guaranteed to improve your writing skills and Fransi is doing it, I’m reading it in awe.

JoV’s Book Pyramid – reading around the world, across genre, an eclectic collection of book gems to be found here.

PB Writes – poet, writer doing the NaMeSitDifStarDaiWri(expletive)Po check her out and be inspired, I was, I wrote 2 poems this week, first in 2 years!

Books Can Save a Life – thoughts on books and how they make us who we are, with an emphasis on the personally meaningful.

My Five Great Fiction Reads

010413_1256_TheIndustry1.jpgThe Industry of Souls, Martin Booth My first read on 2013 was a reread one of my all-time favourite books and one that has stayed with me over the years and stood the test of time. He wrote one other novel Islands of Silence which I also loved and a memoir which I have still to read, Gweilo: Memories Of A Hong Kong Childhood. Sadly, he died in 2004 just after finishing this memoir. My recent review here.

Astonishing GodsAstonishing the Gods, Ben Okri This was a real favourite from my twenties, when life was full of indecision and anything was possible. I love a good fable and this small volume was a surprise read after struggling through Okri’s more infamous, head spinning work The Famished Road.

Birds Without WingsBirds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières When this book was published Loius de Bernières had not published a book for 10 years, so it arrived amidst significant intrigue. He is something of a hit or miss author, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was a word of mouth sensation, even if was a struggle to get into, however this is his masterpiece. Birds without Wings is a book to read slowly and savour each word, each character, each facet of that tragic and bitter struggle between the Greeks and the Turks during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Epic and profoundly humane.

HummingbirdHummingbird, James George In 2006, three New Zealand writer’s, Elisabeth Knox, James George and Vincent O’Sullivan visited Aix-en-Provence and I listened to them read. I had read Knox’s Vintner’s Luck, I knew of Vincent O’Sullivan’s work, but wasn’t familiar with James George. He read from his book Hummingbird and I was entranced. Just those few pages and I knew it was a book I had to read.

Three strangers arrive at a camping ground on a part of the barren, isolated Ninety Mile Beach. They are a former prostitute, a young man just released from prison, and a retired Cambridge don, former Battle of Britain pilot and veteran of the Battle of Crete. Slowly we learn their stories as the author examines their past, lost souls who find solace in this endless sea, sand and sky. It is an incredibly moving, lyrical work from a little known but exceptionally talented writer and poet.

all the pretty horsesAll the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy I picked this up in the library, not realising it was the first in The Border Trilogy, and what a thrill it was to discover that McCarthy, though bleak in his subject writes such pure, lyrical prose.

This coming of age novel and it’s sequel The Crossing are something of the best a book can offer someone like me, a great story, exceptional visual writing, inspiring awe. It’s like unlocking another door to that mystery of what makes us tick, it remains something of a mystery true, but I know that Cormac McCarthy’s way of expressing and describing in words is one of my keys.

So, what are the first books that spontaneously come to mind as your favourites?

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Episode 2: We are not living in France!

The leaves are starting to fall outside La Loubiere, the 16th century château where we are spending this last weekend of the autumn school holidays and with the kitchen door open early while everyone sleeps, I listen to the mesmerising sound of the wind in the trees and think about the change of the seasons. It does not seem so long ago that spring was here, when the bulbs that had lain dormant for the winter were poking their green stems through the surface.

Now we wait for the period of stillness and hibernation, something we know very well, because in a sense we too have been in a kind of perennial hibernation, waiting for our daughter’s voice to emerge in the classroom and speak for the first time in school.

Now our spring has come and just like the association of supportive parents Ouvrir La Voix, she has finally opened her voice after more than five years of silence. She now speaks to almost all her classmates and we have one hurdle left, level 10 in the book that has become my bible – to speak to a teacher or adult in school.

It is hard to believe it has been five years. It is hard to believe that for the first three years we didn’t know what we were dealing with, that it even had a name. Perhaps if we had lived in America or Great Britain, we may have discovered those words earlier – or maybe this condition would not have even manifested.

Here in the south of France, selective mutism is unknown and with our daughter in a French school where interventions to assist children are commonplace and often successful, we were happy to follow the advice and recommendations of the school psychologist (every school has one), an orthophoniste (speech therapist), a psychiatrist and our doctor, all of whom were willing to help and in the case of our doctor, advised and reassured us that it was just a matter of time.

Three years on, having made zero progress, it was all to change late one evening after a telephone call with my Uncle, when he mentioned that he had been speaking with a friend in Los Angeles whose daughter had the same thing as ours.

“What thing?” I said.

“You know” he said, “the not speaking in school thing.”

“It has a name?” I almost shout. “Call her back now and ask her what it is.”

He did and through his friend then passed on those two words selective mutism, or mutism selectif in French, two words that not one of those health professionals had known of or discovered to suggest to us.  We weren’t looking for a label, we were searching for a solution and we’d been looking in the wrong place.  Our programme of intervention was about to take a different path, one used successfully by parents in the know, only we would not have the same support, as to take this route was effectively to reject the existing system.

But to tell this story properly, it is necessary to go back even further, to understand events that lead up to this moment and because despite trying to change the title of this episode and make it shorter, my creative daughter who has already finished the artwork, is telling me to write this second part now and include her picture. So here’s the bit about not living in France!

We are not living in France!

*

When I was six months pregnant we came to France for a 2 week holiday from London. We were toying with the idea of moving here, at least I was, for my husband it would be a return.

My body was changing and the world around was about to change significantly. One afternoon I returned to the hotel in Marseille to rest and as I passed the reception, I noticed all the employees looking at the television, watching what looked like the demolition of a couple of council buildings. I thought it strange that all the staff were watching TV in the middle of the afternoon, so when I got to the room I too turned on the television. I couldn’t understand the words spoken in rapid French, but I could read the subtext. It wasn’t a couple of council buildings at all; it was the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

During that holiday, we looked at a couple of apartments and houses, I sat through long-winded appointments with real estate agents, tried to understand menus and the rapid-fire French coming from that TV, all on a roller coaster of emotions and hormones, understanding little beyond Bonjour and Au Revoir, two basic expressions I thought I could pronounce, but listening carefully, I realised I’d been giving their syllables way too much emphasis, goodbye sounded more like ‘of waa’ than the expression I’d learnt to say.

I became disillusioned with the idea of living in France, I had long ago discarded that child-like submission of accepting things the way they are, being secondary to decision-making. Making decisions and understanding what leads to them is not something one gives up and neither was I interested in putting it on hold while coming to terms with a new language. I freaked out. No way was I coming to live here, a new language, a new city, a new baby, all things where I would be required to start again from the beginning. Absolutely no way I told myself.

Returning to London, the queues were horrendous, airport security was tight and there was no other subject being discussed other than the events that had occurred in New York. And they were beginning to have a trickle-down effect. I was concerned because I worked in the travel industry which was sure to be impacted and sure enough, within two weeks of our return, I was advised that my job was no longer required at a time when I knew I had no chance of finding another, not with a very obvious baby protruding from my mid-section.

Next up: Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils!

Click below to read Previous Episodes of A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Introduction

Episode 1 The Benefits of Insomnia

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel tr. Euan Cameron

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?

If This is a Man: The Truce by Primo Levi

I only had to read the first sentence of a Scotsman in Exile’s blog post of this book to put aside what I was reading and start this almost immediately; his review entitled And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up… continues its first line:

…These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi.

I found a copy on the second-hand shelf of our local bookshop the very next day, a copy I now own that would have to be the most annotated, scribbled in, colour highlighted, dog-eared, pored over volume that I possess (thanks to the previous owner ZIMERI). When I was a student, we studied ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’; how fortunate that today’s students are reading and studying this equally important work.

I’m not sure if I so much as read the book as followed closely in the footsteps of Primo Levi as he recounted the events that unfolded during his journey and time in the concentration camp, due to the way he chooses to express himself, which can best be summarised in his own words:

I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Thus we absorb only that which he personally experienced and perceive not just the daily routine, the trivial yet so essential implements of his survival, the relentless toil and the near brokenness, but we view also the different strata of man in that direst of circumstances, a kind of perverse hierarchy.

Primo Levi was a young man of 24 years, a chemist and part of a partisan band hoping to join the Resistance movement when captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. A few weeks later, all Jews in the camp were told they would be leaving for an unknown destination, revealed to be the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, part of Auschwitz.

650 people made the journey that day; on arrival, the majority were ‘swallowed by the night’ and 125 sent to the camps. Of those, only three made the return journey to Italy after liberation, Primo Levi being one of them.

He was fortunate to return and discover his family intact; we in turn are fortunate that he returned and wrote these two books to be read together, one the descent into darkness, the other the journey back towards an altered but real luminosity.

All I can really say is that if you haven’t read it, add it to your list and find the time one day to slow-read it, Primo Levi was an important chronicler of a difficult period in history and a man who was interested in and able to put into words his observations of humanity in all its capacity, something we all the better for knowing.

Wild Horses and Flash Fiction

Its National Flash Fiction Day today in the United Kingdom, celebrating the short, short form of fiction, the art of telling a story in less than 1,000 words and more often only 150 words.

David Gaffney shares his experience of writing and being published in the form and offers these tips:

  1. Start in the middle
  2. Don’t use too many characters
  3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end
  4. Sweat your title
  5. Make your last line ring like a bell
  6. Write long, then go short

He goes on to explain each tip, click here to reveal his words of wisdom.

And here is my attempt to tell a story in 150 words, word by word.

*

The Muster

*

I ride bareback with just a halter and lead into the midst of the herd, gently coaxing them out from under the trees. My mount quivers beneath me; fear pervades the damp atmosphere and I exhale deeply to expel it.

The sound of a gunshot spooks the stallion and the horses move. Bright sunlight extinguishes shadows as they bolt, branches cracking beneath the drum of hooves.

My father is in position. The herd veers to the right. At the river bank there is a two metre drop into the water and we do not hesitate. I grip hard with my knees and feel muscle ripple beneath me bracing itself for the jump. Something knocks my shoulder and I cry out as we plunge head first into the torrent.

“Wake up son, we’re mustering that herd of wild horses today” my father says as I open my eyes.