Strange Beasts of China – Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang) #DiverseDecember #7

In the city of Yong’an, a young woman who’s a writer and an amateur cryptozoologist writes the stories of the city’s fabled beasts. From the sorrowful beasts who die if they smile to the ancient returning beasts who live underground, the narrator relates episodic tales through which she discovers more about the lives of her friends and ultimately herself. Aided and often obstructed by her friend Charley, her university professor, and the professor’s student Zhong Liang, these relationships create moments of humour as well as enlightenment. The beasts are often metaphors for the way in which societies treat people considered other, but, as the novel progresses, the boundaries between human and beast become blurred. 

The narrator is a great creation; she’s young, takes no nonsense, lives alone and drinks alone in her local bar – a play on the white, male, western noir detective. The novel is partly a detective story, but also a meditation on the nature of humanity. It’s being filmed for Chinese TV, but if there is ever to be an American remake Guillermo del Toro would be the perfect director.

Strange Beasts of China is published by Tilted Axis Press. The copy I read is my own purchase.

4 Brown Girls Who Write #DiverseDecember #6

4 Brown Girls Who Write are a collective who’ve recently published a set of pamphlets of solo works with Rough Trade Books.

Shadow Work by Roshini Goyate is a collection of poems examining things in the shadows both personally and globally. Goyate examines capitalism, motherhood, racism, domestic abuse and identity. ‘A Brief Return’ which considers a woman present in her ‘normal’ life after becoming a mother and riffs off Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’ is a highlight. So too is the short and powerful ‘My Flame’. 

In Hatch, Sharan Hunjan takes an experimental approach to work on reconciling her identity through her mother tongue and her Cockney English; the body pre- and post-motherhood, and the women who’ve inspired her. ‘Breasts’ experiments with typography, considering the different ways this body part is represented in life. It is a highlight, but this whole collection is really impressive.

Sheena Patel’s This Is What Love Is is the only prose work in the selection. A searing piece of memoir, it charts Patel’s relationship with two men – the unreliable H and C with whom Patel has ‘the best sex of my life’. Running alongside this is the increasingly hostile environment in the UK and the trauma this inflicts on Patel. It’s an open, piercing piece that covers emotional abuse, racism, abortion, sex, friendship and family. It’s a stunning piece of work. 

The brilliantly titled I Don’t Know How to Forgive You When You Make No Apology for This Haunting by Sunnah Khan completes the collection. The echoes of an absent father lead to poems on childhood, the weight carried by wife/mother and daughter, an emotional and physical legacy, and also the impact of being the child of an immigrant in the UK. The title poem is a particularly heart-wrenching depiction of the legacy of absence.

While there is some overlap in the themes of each of the pamphlets, Goyate, Hunjan, Patel and Khan have distinctive voices and styles. An impressive introduction to four young writers; I’m already looking forward to more of their work.

The copy of 4 Brown Girls Who Write is my own. 

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie & Earthseed – Octavia E. Butler #DiverseDecember #4 #5

Life intervened yesterday, so it’s a double bill of #DiverseDecember recommendations today.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s short stories are unpredictable, wild, inventive, magical and often heart-wrenching rides. In Nudibranch we meet – amongst others – a woman losing herself; time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. 

Perhaps the standout story in the collection is the winner of the 2020 AKO Cane Prize for African Writing ‘Grace Jones’. The tale of a Grace Jones’ impersonator, Okojie is interested in who this woman really is; what is she hiding behind her lookalike costume? It’s a breath-taking, hard hitting story and you can read it here.

Earthseed: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler

In a dystopian North America, Lauren Oya Olamina lives in a gated community with her family – her academic / preacher father, her stepmum and her siblings. Lauren is hyperempathetic which means she feels the pain of other living creatures. This creates a vulnerability that can be dangerous for her. When the compound is attacked, she begins a journey north, collecting other people along the way. Lauren decides to start preaching her ideas for a new religion which believes that ‘God is Change’. 

Parable of the Talents is narrated by Lauren’s daughter Asha Vere along with diary entries from Lauren. These help Asha to understand her mother and how she has ended up in her current situation. While the first book is focused on community, there is a shift in the second to family. Events are played out against a backdrop of a rising political figure called Andrew Steele Jarret. Jarret is a Christian fundamentalist / White supremacist whose slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’. Yes, really. These books are gripping and fascinating. 

Nudibranch is published by Dialogue Books; Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are published by Headline. All copies are my own.

A Small Silence – Jumoke Verissimo #DiverseDecember #3

‘I’ve always considered how some stories will never get told. It’s the way it is, Ireti. Silence is where we go to listen to those stories. Sit in silence and listen. Silence tells stories too, you know.’

In a corner of Lagos, Prof, newly released from 10 years in prison, returns to a house that he shrouds in darkness and silence. He refuses to turn the lights on; he refuses to admit his best friend, Kano, and his mother too. Both return repeatedly to knock on the door and beg to be allowed in. 

Desire, a university student, lives nearby with her friend, Remilekun. A chance encounter with Prof when she was a young girl was a catalyst for Desire’s love of reading. Now, she is fascinated by Prof’s return. Dared to knock on his door by Remilekun, Desire returns each night and eventually is allowed into Prof’s house. 

Desire’s life is further complicated by her relationship with student union presidential candidate Ireti, who looks similar to Prof, and Remilekun’s relationship with a man only referred to as Mr. America.

A Small Silence considers what happens in the gaps, in the dark, in the stories that aren’t spoken aloud. Whether that’s in families, in relationships or in prison. It considers the consequences of toxic masculinity, particularly domestic violence and cycles that persist. Absent fathers abound. 

Desire reflected on how society placed so much emphasis on family, yet there was more dysfunction than normality. 

There is hope, however, as characters’ support for each other leads to quiet revelations and new perspectives. Verissimo’s occasional use of relating a scene from both Desire and Prof’s perspectives allows her to create an unexpected, satisfying and fresh conclusion. A thoughtful accomplished novel.

A Small Silence recently won the 2020 Aidoo-Snyder Prize for Best Creative Work by the Women’s Caucus at the African Studies Association. It is published by Cassava Republic, a small press founded in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006 and with an office in London since 2016. They also published one of my all-time favourite books, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. You can buy all their titles directly from them on their website. They are currently running a pre-order campaign to support the publication of their forthcoming Spring 2021 titles. More information here.

The copy of A Small Silence I read was my own purchase.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado #DiverseDecember #2

In the Dream House is a ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive relationship. Ground-breaking in that it is one of only a handful of examples of an abusive relationship between partners who share the same gender identity and also in terms of the form Machado chooses for it.

Machado takes us into the dream house via three epigraphs, each on a separate page. It is clear from the start that she is building something new, shifting our perspective on ideas and structures that already exist, asking us to look at the gaps and see what’s missing from our understanding of the world.

Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction […]. What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves of find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence. 

As Machado relates the story of meeting the woman who becomes her abuser and the ways in which this abuse manifests, she plays with literary devices, genres, tropes and references to popular culture, naming each chapter after one of these. For example, the first time Machado is late to meet her girlfriend due to supporting someone in distress, her girlfriend is furious and her reaction disproportionate to the situation. The chapter is titled ‘Dream House as Omen’. 

Possibly the most effective use of this structure comes in the ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®’. Those of us who read these books in childhood will recall that you read a passage and then have to choose what the next move will be. Once you’ve chosen you turn to the relevant page and keep going until you either run out of options or are successful in overcoming all the obstacles and completing the quest. Machado turns this into a circular exercise from which there is no escape. Her approach mirrors exactly how it feels to be trapped in a situation where there is no correct answer and you’re left questioning your own judgement and your self-worth. 

In the Dream House succeeds on every level. It is a heart-breaking account of emotional abuse in a shared gender identity relationship and a piece of experimental non-fiction which breaks and remakes canonical ideas and structures. It is an incredible piece of work. 

In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail. The copy I read was my own purchase.

Bad Love – Maame Blue #DiverseDecember #1

It’s the first day of #DiverseDecember and my plan is an advent style post a day from now until the 24th. There will be more post-Christmas, but more on that later. Lots of my recommendations will be from small / indie presses. You can buy books direct from many of them and there will be links at the end of each post. A reminder that you can follow @DiverseDecember on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where I’ll be posting recommendations every day and sharing those from other bloggers / reviewers.

My Day 1 recommendation is Bad Love by Maame Blue

I am not a romantic. I do not know how to tell those kinds of stories, the ones filled with magic and laughter and a purple hue. Romance has never connected with me in that way. But love – hard, bad, rough love – well, I could speak on that all day.

Ekuah begins her story by introducing us to herself and to Dee. When the book starts, they are both students. Young and wary, they dance around each other, obviously attracted but playing a game of push and pull. Ekuah likes to feel needed and arranges much of her life around Dee’s movements. He’s a musician, just starting out, which often makes his appearances irregular and unpredictable.

Following a trip to Venice to stay with her cousin and a violent incident while she’s there, Ekuah returns with a changed outlook and begins volunteering at an after-school club. During an evening at a spoken word night, Ekuah meets Jay Stanley. English teacher by day, spoken word event coordinator by night, Jay brings some stability to Ekuah’s life. Dee never quite disappears though, and through her relationship to both men, Ekuah has to work out what sort of life she wants to live. 

In the background to all this, there’s a significant subplot about Ekuah’s parent’s marriage. They are clearly having some issues that neither of them wants to confront, at least not in Ekuah’s presence. Their story provides an interesting counterpoint to Ekuah’s.

Maame Blue weaves a story of a young woman navigating significant decisions about the work she wants to do, the lifestyle she wants to have, and the type of love she wants in her life. Of course, all of these things overlap, and Blue creates a skilful and nuanced portrait of how Ekuah comes to this realisation. Although I was interested in the men she was involved with, my feelings about each of them shifting with each interaction, I was rooting for Ekuah. What I wanted, more than anything, was for her to invest in herself. Whether or not she manages it, you’ll have to find out yourself!

Bad Love is an absorbing portrait of a young woman learning how to love and how to live. I loved it.

Bad Love is one of Jacaranda Books’ Twenty in 2020 publications. You can read more (and buy the books!) via their website.

The copy of the book I read was my own purchase.

#DiverseDecember

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time might remember that in 2015 I co-ran a reading project / campaign called Diverse December. Well, it’s happening again this year and I would love you to join in.

#DiverseDecember is a month of reading and recommending books by Black, brown and indigenous writers. It is an opportunity to discover new books, to consider our reading habits and to make a permanent change in what we choose to read.

The campaign was created in 2015 by Dan Lipscombe in response to an all-white list for World Book Night. This year, I’m running it in reaction to the pledges many of us made to do better following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

How do you join in? Read and recommend at least one book by a Black, brown or indigenous writer during December. Use the hashtag #DiverseDecember so your recommendations can be seen and shared.

You can also follow the campaign on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. On those channels, over the next week, I’ll be highlighting some of the publishers, organisations and individuals who’ve been doing this work for some time. Follow, listen, support them. 

FAQs

Why are you – a white person – running this?

Because I don’t believe that the burden of encouraging white people to read books by Black, brown and indigenous writers should keep falling on Black, brown and indigenous people. Because I love books and want to shout about all the superb ones by Black, brown and indigenous writers. If you’re not reading books by these writers, you’re missing out on some of the best writing and that’s a real shame. 

Won’t the best books rise to the top anyway? 

Unfortunately, in an industry dominated by middle class white people at all levels, this often isn’t the case, particularly when it comes to books written by Black, brown and indigenous writers. Spread the Word’s recent report ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing’ highlighted several of the issues. They included the idea that ‘publishers fear that books by writers of colour are too niche and will not appeal to their core audience’. That ‘a narrow conception of [the industry’s] audience makes it harder for books by ‘BAME’ writers to break out as resources are distributed according to how well a book is expected to ‘perform’, and that ‘the monoculturalism of the decision makers [i.e. major retail outlet buyers] poses an obstacle to the backing of books by ‘BAME’ authors’. You can read the full report HERE.

Shouldn’t diversity include LGBTQ+, working class and disabled people?

Yes and there are Black, brown and indigenous writers who are also LGBTQ+ / working class / disabled. White writers who are LGBTQ+ / working class / disabled still have white privilege. This campaign was specifically created due to racial imbalance and that continues to be its focus.

Why are you using the term Black, brown and indigenous writers?

To try and be as inclusive as possible. It is difficult to select a term which encompasses the diverse backgrounds and identities of the many individuals included in this group.

Cut from the Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar

Occasionally I use this blog to write about projects that I think are important/necessary. Today it’s one that’s being crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound. Cut from the Same Cloth is an anthology of essays written by British hijabis and edited by the brilliant Sabeena Akhtar, who you might know from her work with Media Diversified, Bare Lit Festival and Tilted Axis Press.

From the Unbound website:

Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.

In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.

Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.

It’s time for change.

This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.

Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.

Diversity’s Not Just for December #ReadDiverse2016

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When my friend and fellow blogger Dan started the diverse December hashtag, I sent him a message that read ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to tweet the shit out of #diversedecember. I think it’s a brilliant idea.’ It ended with us conceiving a plan to work on it together. However, neither of us could have envisaged how well it would be received, how many people would tweet recommendations and change their reading plans, nor that the hashtag would make the front of the Guardian Review.

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Fairly early on we began to discuss taking the project into 2016. I’ll let Dan take it from here with an extract from a post on his blog. You can read the full piece here.

I didn’t expect the reception to be so huge when I coined #diversedecember. Bloggers, readers, journalists and publishers have taken the hashtag and begun to explore diverse voices and stories. Although this initiative was conceived after the World Book Night list announcement, it’s clear that diversity needs to be considered at all times when reading. Over December, so far, Naomi and I have been inundated with recommendations for writers of colour, which is wonderful to see. We want that to continue and so we have decided that #diversedecember will carry on throughout 2016. Of course, we can’t use that hashtag any longer and there are many other fantastic initiatives promoting writers of colour, so we had a think about what we wanted to achieve.

#ReadDiverse2016 will focus on BAME books just as Diverse December has done, however, it’s clear from our interactions on Twitter that the hashtag has begun to touch on many ideas of diversity. Going forward, we hope to help and promote authors that identify as LGBTIQ, those who are disabled and those who suffer from mental health conditions. As this idea sparked from a lack of BAME representation, that will remain our primary focus, but we can’t have diversity without every single voice. Hashtags such as #TranslationThurs and #ReadWomen are already doing stellar work, as are The Green Carnation Prize. They each do a great job in highlighting books by authors that readers want to relate to – we’d like to add to that.

#diversedecember has taught me one very important thing – books are universal and everyone should have an equal opportunity to tell their story in their voice. Without Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic authors getting the recognition they deserve, we could be losing out on future generations of creative people who may believe that there is no place for them.

I hope that you’ll join in with me and Naomi as we promote diversity with the #ReadDiverse2016 hashtag on Twitter.

I’ll talk more about my plans on the 1st of January, I look forward to hearing about yours.

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord

Paama has left her husband. She went to visit her family and never returned. The family moved away. Now her husband has employed a tracker, Kwame, to find her.

Paama’s living with her family and has fended off the village gossip by way of just enough information to stop them enquiring and her fabulous cooking.

Besides, it kept Paama busy enough to ignore the nagging question of how she was going to tell Ansige she was never coming back. She will have to consider that question soon, for efficient Kwame has already traced her whereabouts and, not without a qualm, reported to Ansige.

And Ansige, in his desperation, will not be sending messages or servants this time. He is coming to speak to her, face to face.

The villagers are desperate to know what the situation with Paama’s marriage is. It becomes clear to the reader fairly quickly as we follow his progress to Paama’s village: Ansige is a glutton.

Truth to tell, his frame looked as of it would take far more than three days’ worth of racking to pare it down. Ansige was not flabby, no, but he was solid. Layers of muscle braced the fat around his arms, legs and shoulders. Only his belly betrayed him. He carried a prosperous paunch before him and occasionally stroked it as fondly as any expectant mother cradling her womb.

After his arrival at the village, we are told three tales of Ansige’s gluttony. In all of which he does something foolish and Paama rescues him, covering for him so the rest of the villagers don’t see the truth.

Another story runs parallel to the tale of Paama and Ansige’s marriage. At the beginning of the novel, we’re related a conversation by two unknown speakers:

‘She alone can safely wield the power that I shall take from our…former colleague.’ The last two words rode on the breath of a regretful sigh.

‘Will you really? I mean, to involve a human! Are you certain?’

These two unknown figures have plans for Paama, fate-like plans in which Ansige, if he is not careful, will be brushed aside like a fly. It is the pause point of the wave at its crest, the rumbling of a distant storm, the thrill in the backbone when the eyes of the predator glitter in the moonlight from the darkness of the trees and tall grass. Something is going to change, and it is for you to judge at the end of the tale who has made the best of the change and of their choices.

The unknown figures introduce a different world to the story: that of talking arachnids and insects, that of the undying – the tricksters and the djombis. The plans for Paama involve a Chaos stick, taken from an indigo coloured djombi and he wants it back.

Redemption in Indigo reads as an oral tale that’s being passed on to the reader. We’re guided by a narrator who interjects, pointing out the likelihood of elements of the story and making asides about characters. Lord uses a three-part structure for the tales of Angsie’s gluttony and Paama’s moments with the indigo djombi. I relate this to fairytales but I’m sure it’s typical of many other forms of storytelling too.

The fantastical elements of the book are outside of my usual reading sphere. As a result, I’m sure there are references I’ve missed but I did enjoy venturing into the world of spirits and talking animals. An interesting read.