Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced a few days ago, you may have heard about it already, but if you haven’t here are the six books that made it through, the winner will be announced on 5 June:

For a summary of what each book is about, refer back to my original post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Rather than repeat the summaries, I’m going to feature here a little about the author and their work (from the Women’s Prize website). I have read and reviewed Milkman, and the one that attracts me the most is Circe.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – (Ancient Greek history written from a female point of view – retelling The Iliad – humans, their egos and wars)

Born in Yorkshire, Pat Barker began her literary career in her forties, after taking a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. She has since published fifteen novels, including the Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the UK’s highest literary honour, the Booker Prize.

I have only read one of her books, The Ghost Road, the third in that trilogy and the one that won the Booker, and sadly it was a hard slog for me which I admit has made me reluctant to try anything else. A quick look at Goodreads tells me that the first book in that trilogy has almost double the number of readers, so probably that would have been a better place to start, than the prizewinning novel.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – (an obsession with black widow spiders leads the author to write a crime thriller about two sisters, one who kills, the other who cleans up after her)

A graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University, following her degree, Oyinkan Braithwaite worked as an assistant editor and has since been freelancing as a writer and graphic designer. She’s had short stories published in anthologies, in 2014 she was shortlisted as a top ten spoken word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam and in 2016 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

This book was popular among readers as soon as it was published, it’s just not my genre although I’ve really enjoyed a number of Nigerian authors and I’m always interested in seeing what new works are coming out from there.

Milkman by Anna Burns – (a young woman tries to be herself in a community that prefers to categorise its inhabitants and gossip about those who don’t conform)

Born in Belfast though now living in East Sussex, Anna Burns drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Milkman won the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

When Milkman won the Man Booker Prize, I wrote this post about reader’s reactions to it and referenced an interesting essay called Gender in Conflict by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado. I bought it immediately and loved it, my review here.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – (a couple in South London become parents and grow disenchanted with their lives)

A British author of Nigerian and English descent, Diana Evans bestselling novel 26a, won the inaugural Orange Award for New Writers and the British Book Awards deciBel Writer of the Year prize. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel, the Guardian First Book, the Commonwealth Best First Book and the Times/Southbank Show Breakthrough awards, and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Wonder is currently under option for TV dramatisation. She is a former dancer, journalist and critic. Ordinary People is her third novel.

An author who I am familiar with and been closely tempted to read, one who is well-known and highly regarded for her evocation of place. It reminds me of Zadie Smith’s NW and her evocation of London through it inhabitants.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – (a young successful couple have their lives disrupted by a false conviction)

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fortunate to have featured on Barack Obama’s reading list in 2018 and Oprah’s book club making it an instant bestseller, it’s been compared to James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk read and reviewed earlier this year.

Circe by Madeline Miller – (rewrite/interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey, from the rise of the feminine perspective)

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles which won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 and was translated into twenty-five languages. Miller holds an MA in Classics from Brown University, taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students; also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and at Yale School of Drama focusing on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. Her essays have appeared in publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR. She lives outside Philadelphia.

I read and enjoyed her debut novel and this one sounds just as good. The female goddesses and characters from many history books have been lying dormant for centuries, allowing others to portray them as less than powerful, now the unveiling of their message has begun to rise as modern women awaken, remember and begin to share ‘herstory’.

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Here’s what the Chair of judges had to say about the shortlist:

It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”

Have you read any of these titles, or are you planning to?

Buy A Copy of Any One of These via Book Depository

 

Women’s Prize For Fiction 2019 Longlist

Between 1996 and 2012 it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and between 2014 and 2017 the Baileys Prize for Fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is a favourite literary award of many, awarded annually to an outstanding novel that demonstrates excellence, quality, originality and accessibility.

The Prize has recently evolved to charitable status as The Women’s Prize Trust and now invites anyone who wishes to contribute to its ongoing success, to support it through their donation lead Patron Scheme, which offers varying levels of participation and reward.

Their charitable objectives seek to honour & celebrate the widest possible range of women’s voices and stories from all over the world by:

  • shining a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten women’s stories
  • promoting gender equality
  • supporting literacy, research and educational initiatives to help inspire the readers & the writers of tomorrow
  • providing a year-round digital platform for women’s voices and offering a range of live events, encouraging debate between readers & writers.

After passionate discussion, the judges of 2019 have come up with the following longlist of 16 novels, the Chair, Professor Kate Williams had this to say:

“I am thrilled to share this longlist – sixteen incredible books by a diverse group of women, from the UK and countries across the world, all brilliant stories that sweep you into another world. Each of them have been a privilege to read, and they have taken us into places a million miles from each other, exploring the lives of women and men in so many different but utterly compelling ways.”

I have copied the book summaries below from the Women’s Prize website  and provided title links to Book Depository, if you wish to buy a book (with free shipping). Personally, I have read two, the excellent Man Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns (my review here) and Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies (my review here), which I enjoyed so much, I ordered her historical fiction novel The Book of Harlan.

The Greek myth retellings seem to be in the ascendant, I like that they’ve chosen empowered female heroines, I have a copy of Freshwater, which from the moment I read its premise I’ve wanted to read, so I’ll definitely be reading that.

I’ve read Mexican born author Valeria Luiselli’s essays Sidewalks her novel stands out, as it was born of her experience as a volunteer court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them, the subject of another essay collection Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. In Lost Children Archive, she tells the story of one family, though don’t expect a straight forward narrative, as I recall from reading her previously, she’s an introspective, philosophical meanderer interested in spaces, voids and the edges of things, not a traditional storyteller.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan war whose voice has been silent – till now. Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness history forgot.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton – It is 1910 and Philadelphia is burning. The last place Spring wants to be is in the rundown, coloured section of a hospital surrounded by the groans of sick people and the ghost of her dead sister. But as her son Edward lays dying, she has no other choice. There’re whispers that Edward drove a streetcar into a shop window. Some people think it was an accident, others claim that it was his fault, the police are certain that he was part of a darker agenda. Is he guilty? Can they find the truth? All Spring knows is that time is running out. She has to tell him the story of how he came to be. With the help of her dead sister, newspaper clippings and reconstructed memories, she must find a way to get through to him. To shatter the silences that governed her life, she will do everything she can to lead him home.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other

The Pisces by Melissa Broder – Lucy has been writing her dissertation for nine years when she and her boyfriend have a dramatic break up. After she hits rock bottom, her sister in Los Angeles insists that Lucy dog-sit for the summer. Staying in a gorgeous house on Venice Beach, Lucy can find little relief from her anxiety – not in the Greek chorus of women in her love addiction therapy group, not in her frequent Tinder excursions, not even in Dominic the dog’s easy affection. Everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer while sitting alone on the beach rocks one night. But when Lucy learns the truth about his identity, their relationship, and Lucy’s understanding of what love should look like, take a very unexpected turn.

Milkman by Anna Burns – In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – Ada was born with one foot on the other side. Having prayed her into existence, her parents Saul and Saachi struggle to deal with the volatile and contradictory spirits peopling their troubled girl.When Ada comes of age and heads to college, the entities within her grow in power and agency. An assault leads to a crystallization of her selves: Asughara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves – now protective, now hedonistic – seize control of Ada, her life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and being. Feeling explodes through the language of this scalding novel, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis – or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap?

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li – The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff’s professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father’s homely establishment. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenaged daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, year to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.Set in 1970s communist Romania, Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south-west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark. The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other. Meanwhile, thousands of children are journeying north, travelling to the US border from Central America and Mexico. A grandmother or aunt has packed a backpack for them, putting in a bible, one toy, some clean underwear. They have been met by a coyote: a man who speaks to them roughly and frightens them. They cross a river on rubber tubing and walk for days, saving whatever food and water they can. Then they climb to the top of a train and travel precariously in the open container on top. Not all of them will make it to the border.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden – Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places her in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as religious atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the fifteen years she is enslaved within the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

Circe by Madeline Miller – In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Normal People by Sally Rooney -Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

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So have you read any of these or are you planning to?

Further Reading

Interview Valeria Luiselli: ‘Children chase after life, even if it ends up killing them’
by Emma Brockes, the Guardian

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

Click Here to Buy a Copy of

The Open Door

via Book Depository

 

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz tr. Sarah Moses, Carolina Orloff

Usually I read books because I am drawn to them by the premise, by the cultural setting, by an author’s intriguing background and experience which suggests to me they may have interesting insights to explore within a novel.

I hesitated about whether to read Die, My Love because of what I perceived as its intensity, I thought it might be depressing. The reviewer whom I expressed this too, responded:

I would say razor-sharp and brutally honest rather than depressing. No punches are pulled.

She was reviewing it, along with all the other titles long listed for the new Republic of Consciousness literary prize created by novelist Neil Griffiths to acknowledge and celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” published in the UK and Ireland.

When it was short listed for this prize and simultaneously long listed for the Man Booker International 2018, I decided to read it and find out, despite the earlier hesitation, similarly to the feeling I had about reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

We meet a young woman, a university educated foreigner, living in the French countryside with her husband and their small child, another on the way. She is lying in the grass, in 35°C (95°F) summer heat, thinking disturbing, violent thoughts against those around her, while expressing an acute, brutal self-hatred alongside an intense uncontrollable desire.

Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanize the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish.

It’s written in an urgent stream of consciousness narrative, focused on the minutiae of her day, much of it spent waiting for her husband to return from work, observing herself by turn, in her acts of taking care of and neglecting the needs of her helpless son, fantasizing about harming herself.

I throw out the heavy nappy and walk towards the patio doors. I always toy with the idea of going right through the glass and cutting every inch of my body, always aiming to pass through my own shadow. But just before I hit it, I stop myself and slide it open.

It’s a rendition of spiralling out of control, sometimes playing the part of mother, in front of friends on the odd occasion they’re invited to a birthday party or playing the daughter in law at a family gathering, but not too hard, because it is impossible, the insanity too close to be able to sustain any form of denial for too long a period of time.

When my husband’s away, every second of silence is followed by a hoard of demons infiltrating my brain.

If she’s not going crazy from the silence, she’s targeting the weak, aggressing the overweight nurse who comes to tend to the neighbour, acting haughty with the women working in the supermarket, the pizza delivery men, the manicurists.

I yell at them in public. I like to make a scene, humiliate them, show them how cowardly they are. Because that’s what they are: chickens. How come none of them have tried to fight me? How come none of them have called the authorities to have me deported?

As a reader, I can’t help asking questions, like, what is this? Is this postpartum depression? No, this was a pre-existing condition that started before she gave birth, that continued afterwards and seems never to have ended.

Is this the result of leaving her education, her intellectual self behind? Of embracing motherhood? Of being separated from her country, culture, her family, the way of her own people? Those things are never ever mentioned, never alluded too, never missed, there is no nostalgia for the past, only a visceral disgust for the present, a desire for a future where she is taken out, extinguished.

We were only just waking up from the weekend and already we were fighting. At half past eight I let out the first scream, at nine-twenty I threatened to leave, and at nine-fifty I said I’d make his life a living hell. By ten past ten, I was standing like a ram in the middle of the road with my straw hat on, suitcase in hand and flies in my eardrums.

She reflects that even were she to get hit and killed, it would unlikely gain her sympathy, that would be saved for her poor child, left without a mother.

No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life.

She blames desire, calls it a destructive hunger, an alarm, ferocious.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire that is.

I waver between wondering if this is something a woman would experience if the circumstances are created that deprive her of the things she needs for sustenance, or is this a woman creating what she perceives as art, an art form that is designed to shock, to provoke a response in its audience.

In an interview by Jackie Law at Never Imitate, when asked about her inspiration, Ariana Harwicz responded:

Motherhood as a form of prison, a trap, an ordinary destiny. Writing the novel was a chance to escape that.

When asked about herself:

I always say that I was born when I wrote Die, My Love. Before then, I was alive, in the same way that everybody is alive, yet for me that is not really being alive. I had recently had a baby, I had moved to live in the countryside next to a forest. I would watch the thunderstorms, I would go horse-riding, but that was not life for me. And then I wrote Die, My Love, immersed in that desperation between death and desire. Die, My Love comes from that. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.

In a podcast with the London Review Bookshop, she expressed interest first and foremost in the question ‘What is it, to be an artist?’, her response to her own question illuminating:

An artist, is someone is willing to break tradition, convention and transgress outside the norm

This is what she succeeds in doing in Die, My Love. She pursues it with intellectual vigour, with a bold, unapologetic, Argentinian energy that busts out of convention, leaves the old form of language and expression behind, takes her literary weapons into the forest and wreaks havoc on the page and in the mind of the reader.

Note: Thank you to Charco Press, independent publisher of contemporary Latin American literature, for providing an e-book.

Buy a copy of Die, My Love from Charco Press

Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Click Here to Buy A Book Now via BookDepository

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The inhabitants of Amgash appear to have invaded the imagination of Elizabeth Strout, not satisfied with being mere peripheral characters in her excellent novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

That book, which was a novel to us, is a memoir to them, one that a few of the characters we encounter in this set of stories will buy and read, one of them even attending a book signing near Chicago and meeting her again many, many years post their shared childhoods.

The characters vary in their kindnesses and quirks, in the opening story Pete, Lucy’s brother, resents his neighbour Tommy’s visits, carried out with heartfelt intention and yet perceived as a kind of torture, so much of what occurs between people is misunderstood due to the lack of communication or misreading of intentions.

In a voice without belligerence, even with a touch of apology to it, he said, “Look Tommy. I’d like it if you didn’t keep coming over here.” Pete’s lips were pale and cracked, and he wet them with his tongue, looking at the ground. For a moment Tommy was not sure  he heard right, but as he started to say “I only-” Pete looked at him fleetingly and said, “You do it to torture me, and I think enough time has gone by now.”

We find out what happened to the pretty Nicely girls, whose mother left the home after a brief affair that went wrong and lived a quiet life of regret nearby for years afterwards. Through Patty, we meet Lucy’s niece Lila, who has never met her Aunt but shares strong opinions of her with Patty, her school guidance counsellor.

Patty said, “That’s a nice name Lila Lane.” The girl said, I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her.”

Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against the desk.

The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us. I never even met her.”

Dottie runs a Bed and Breakfast and the steady churn of customers keeps her busy and entertained with company. Sometimes she meets the wealthy who wish to confide in her, it turns out they can be lonely too.

The next morning at breakfast Shelley did not acknowledge Dottie. Not even a thank you for the whole wheat toast.  Dottie was very surprised;  her eyes watered with the  sudden sting of this. But then she understood. There was an old African proverb Dottie had read one day that said, “After a man eats, he becomes shy.” And Dottie thought of that now with Shelley. Shelley was like the man in the proverb, having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.  She had confided more than she wanted to, and now Dottie was somehow to blame.

In a later story though we become aware of a change, often there’ll be just a passing reference to the character who inhabited the previous story, one that informs us of what followed on, and gives a kind of quiet closure, in this respect it reminds me a lot of Yoko Ogawa’s stories in her collection Revenge, there is that thread that connects the stories, it creates a little frisson of excitement when you spot it.

It is such a pleasure to spend time within the pages of Strout’s imaginary characters, who move from references into fully formed characters with such ease, this collection had me wondering if one of these characters might push in on her and demand a novel too. Tt wouldn’t surprise me – who is in control here, the characters or the author? I have a feeling her characters have a strong will of their own, and that this book was written to try to keep a few of them quiet, so she could move on to the next story that’s no doubt already brewing.

Anything is Possible recently won The Story Prize (for an outstanding work of short fiction) and a cash award of US$20,000. The judges praised the book for its “subtle power,” and described Strout as:

“a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted.”

Today the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced (at midnight), it will be interesting to see if this collection will be nominated, I certainly hope that it will be.

Further Reading:

My Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Review: The Burgess Boys

Buy a copy of one of Elizabeth Strout’s books via BookDepository