memoir

READ THE WORLD – South Sudan: Making Peace and Nurturing Life: An African Woman’s Journey of Struggle and Hope by Julia Aker Duany

Julia Aker Duany’s life growing up in South Sudan, moving to America with her husband and children, and then returning to South Sudan in the 1990s to see how life has changed due to war and learning how best to help people.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is the kind of memoir that’s very informative, not just about one person’s life and experiences but about so much more like the culture they grew up in and their country’s politics and conflicts. Julia Aker Duany describes herself as “an African, a Sudanese, a Nilotic from southern Sudan, a Nuer from Lou, a Gon from Rumjok section, a woman, a mother” and by the end of the book you really do have a decent understanding of what all those different aspects of her identity mean to her and how they have shaped her when growing up.

I found the culture shock between America and Sudan interesting because the things that she was surprised about weren’t necessarily ones that I’d seen mentioned in other memoirs or immigrant stories. Just generally Julia Aker Duany had a really interesting take on life, family, and responsibility and it was always interesting to see the connections between what was important to her as an adult to what she was taught by her mother and wider community.

Julia Aker Duany is a professor and academic who loves learning so it’s interesting and invaluable to have a woman from Sudan explain things that are usually generalised by white/Western academics. She makes a point to criticise the textbooks she learnt from in America as the were titled things like “Women in the Third World” and didn’t really differentiate between the women in these “Third World” countries, cultures, or tribes. She has an in-depth knowledge of both places and how she used her knowledge of women’s traditions to help empower women and solve conflicts in Sudan was really impressive.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is a very readable book and it explains complex things in an accessible way. I’ve learnt a lot about many different countries and their histories through my Read the World Project but this is one where I really feel I have a firm understanding of what started the conflict between northern and southern Sudan and how events have had knock on affects for its people.

READ THE WORLD – Uganda: Child Soldier by China Keitetsi

China Keietsi’s story of her life as a child conscript in the Ugandan National Resistance Army starts at age eight and continues for ten years of terror, humiliation and sexual assault. After re-joining the army years later, she serves as bodyguard to the Minister for Records who is disgraced and eventually, she manages to make a new life for herself in Denmark.

Child Soldier is an incredibly difficult read. Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from the abuse she went through when recounting her story. The thing that kind of surprised me about Child Soldier is that half the book was about Keitetsi’s childhood and mistreatment before she was even recruited into the National Resistance Army. Her father and grandmother would beat her and treat her differently to her father’s other children just because her mother gave birth to a daughter and not a son. Some of her half and stepsiblings also weren’t treated well but the physical abuse Keitetsi went through by the people who are supposed to love you was heart breaking.

Through my Read the World Project I’ve read a few different memoirs from people who have gone through war and become refugees but the thing that made Child Soldier stick out in a way was her family life before she got caught up in war. The other memoirs I’ve read have had these young people have normal, caring families and a home life that a lot of people could relate to before tragedy struck. With Keitetsi’s story, it’s like the poor girl never had a proper childhood. She was abused before she even got tangled up in a war and was forced to fight and kill.

Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors she saw and experienced but it was interesting to see how it was written. Even though she was forced to grow up quickly, there was still only a childlike understanding of some things. She had to grow up and adapt quickly and no matter how high a rank she got in the army as she got older, there were still a lot of men who saw her a young woman that they could do with as they wish.

READ THE WORLD – Togo: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Translated by James Kirkup.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book on Greenland and knew he had to go there. An African in Greenland follows his progress from Western Africa, through Europe and finally to Greenland, the journey took nearly a decade and then he spends almost two years traveling around Greenland and getting to know the people and their customs.

I feel like An African in Greenland has been on many of my TBRs over the past few years so I’m so happy and relieved that I’ve finally read it but also kind of annoyed with myself that it’s taken me this long.

It’s a very easy to read non-fiction book thanks to Kpomassie’s writing style. He documents his travels well and explains things while also sharing funny or weird anecdotes. An African in Greenland is split into four parts and the first is a brief introduction to his life and family who live in a village in Togo before he decides to make the trek to Greenland without telling his parents or having any real plan or money. It was fascinating seeing how he even got there. This was in the late 1950s that he set off and didn’t make it to Greenland till the mid-1960s. he went from country to country, staying long enough to earn money so he could make the next leg of his journey and managing to meet so many kind and helpful people along the way who’d let him stay with them for free. Trains, boats, busses, he took pretty much every form of transport bar plane.

Kpomassie was in his mid-twenties when he finally got to Greenland and while there’s obviously a big difference in what he’s used to in terms of temperature and culture, he just instantly loved the place and the people. It’s kind of fascinating how someone from a completely different part of the world can feel so at home in a totally different place. I liked how it showed the differences between southern and northern Greenland, both in terms of weather and the people’s attitudes. It makes sense as no matter how big or small a country is, the people who live in different places there have as many differences as similarities. It was interesting to see how while Kpomassie was friendly with people in the southern towns, he was also a bit disappointed as they didn’t live as he saw in his book. They were almost the metropolitan area where traditions like hunting were long gone, he had to go further north to find those who still hunted, had sleds and huskies and lived how he saw in his book.

An African in Greenland is a really interesting read and I learnt a lot about Greenland and its people. It’d be interesting to know how much life has changed for the people living in those remote regions with the internet and technology because in the 1960s it seemed a very isolated life even if there was a community of people around you. Then there’s Kpomassie as a person. While the things he learnt and shared are interesting, he as a person is just so impressive. He had a limited amount of schooling but clearly had a knack for languages as he did courses via mail and just the fact that he decided he wanted to go somewhere based on pictures in a book and no matter how many setbacks or detours he had, he kept going and achieved his dream. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Translated by Ernest Jones and James Kirkup.

A coming-of-age memoir about Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Koroussa, Guinea. Laye recounts his mother’s supernatural powers, his father’s prestige as a goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood which is marked with rituals. As he gets older, he must choose between his home and his academic talents which could lead him far from his family.

The Dark Child is a very quick and easy read. As it’s a memoir it’s written in the first person and it’s written quite simply, in part presumably because the narrator in question is a young child for most of it – the book ends when he is about eighteen. Camara Laye grew up in the 1930s in a village and he was one of the first in his family to go to school. He grew up experiencing the culture and traditions of his family and people but also started to embrace the slowly encroaching modern world.

There’s one chapter that’s all about when he was circumcised when he was about twelve or thirteen and how that was the moment he, and the other boys, became men. It was interesting but surprising as I just presumed that if a child was going to be circumcised it happened when they were a baby, not when they were prepubescent. The rituals he and the other boys experienced were a huge part of life in their village and while they didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen to them, they knew other boys (or young men) who had gone through it, including their own fathers.

It was interesting to see these rituals from both an outsider and insiders’ perspective. As while most of The Dark Child felt like a present narrative from the eyes of a child, there were moments when Laye would reflect on events as an adult and explain things that he had found out since he experienced them as a child. Things that seemed like magic and real as a child were then explained and were not so scary once he found out how certain things happened. But, as he did go away from home for school as he got older, there were something’s about the traditions that he never learnt the truth about.

This, and other moments like that, shows how embracing modernity can be a double-edged sword. While family may encourage a child to take the opportunities that they didn’t have, it can mean they lose out on learning things that are traditional and part of their community’s history. The Dark Child was an interesting coming-of-age story and how it blends superstition with education shows there’s value in both for people. 3/5.

REVIEW: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Kal Penn is an actor and former White House staff member in the Barack Obama administration. I first saw him in the TV show House but knew little about him (except his character was written out of House so he could go work at the White House) so when I heard about his memoir and I had a free audible credit I thought I’d check it out.

I really enjoyed You Can’t Be Serious. It’s narrated by Penn (I always prefer to read memoirs narrated by the author, it just makes it feel more real and accessible) and he is a funny guy so there were many anecdotes that got me smiling or even laughing. Equally, he does a really good job of explaining things. Whether that’s what his job entailed in the White House or how the entertainment industry works and the difference between agents, publicists and managers.

I found it equal parts interesting, disappointing and hopeful hearing about how he broke into acting and the various racist things he encountered from the likes of casting agents along the way. Disappointing and sad because of how used he became to such things but then hopeful and inspiring because of the people he had around him and how other people of colour would give advice when they could and he learnt to do the same. There are instances where a producer thought that Asians don’t watch movies (because of shoddy data) or that white people won’t watch anything that doesn’t have white people in, and while Kal Penn was hearing this in the late 90s and early 2000s, they are unfortunately ideas that are still prevalent today – no matter how many box office success have proved people wrong.

Kal Penn covers a lot of things in his book. His childhood, university years and how he always wanted to be an actor and to do something in public service. How he got into campaigning for Obama in 2007 and then becoming part of his staff was compelling as it was clear to see his passion for what they were doing. I liked that fact that the audiobook actually had the audio from when Penn delivered a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It’s a great speech but actually hearing the crowd react to it makes you feel like you’re there with them.

What I wasn’t expecting from listening to You Can’t Be Serious was the urge to watch the Harold & Kumar films. Stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, plus I was a young teen when the first film came out, so they had passed me by. That is until listening to Penn talk about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. His love and affection for that film and how proud he was of it made me want to watch it (I now have and a review will be coming soon). Listening to him talk about the script and the fact two white guys wrote it specifically with two Asian American leads in mind just amazed him and he never thought it’d get made. But it did and the way he talked about the audition process and being in waiting rooms with people who looked like him rather than being the only Asian was really something.

You Can’t Be Serious is a really entertaining and interesting memoir. Naturally those who are fans of Kal Penn should like it but for people like me who only knew him from one TV show that’s 10 years old, I still found it very enjoyable. It’s both frustrating and inspiring to see the highs and lows of his acting career and he paints such a vivid picture of the people around him, friends, family, co-workers, that it feels like your listening to an old friend telling their story. You Can’t Be Serious is just a lot of fun and I think anyone who’s interested in the entertainment industry and how someone who isn’t white experiences it could get something out of it. There are passages in here I could see being very useful in Film Studies classes on how the industry works – or rather how it shouldn’t and needs to change. 5/5.

Plus, this this the first book I’ve managed to read in like a month so I’m very grateful for it hopefully helping me get out of my reading slump.

READ THE WORLD – Cambodia: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Narrated by Tavia Gilbert.

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung’s family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labour camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.

Knowing next to nothing about Cambodia, its people, its cities, its language, listening to the audiobook really helped to learn the pronunciations of different places and names. I feel by listening to the audiobook I got a better feel for the country and its people than reading a physical copy of the book because I know myself and when there’s a word I don’t know how to pronounce, I often skim over it which can mean it loses its impact or meaning.

Loung Ung was just five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and her whole life changed in the blink of an eye. What’s captured so well in First They Killed My Father is how a child understands (or doesn’t) such huge things. For instance, when her family lives Phnom Penh the soldiers tell them they can return in three days, and Loung Ung just doesn’t get why they have to keep walking with no real end destination in mind, when after three days they should just turn around and go home.

Slowly over the months and years Loung Ung grows to understand the fear and danger she and her family live in. They face starvation and the way their bodies are described paints a vivid picture in your mind of the malnourishment they are all facing. It isn’t just the hunger but the fear of the Khmer Rouge and what would happen if they learnt that their father was once connected to the government. It’s a constant source of anxiety for the whole family and the children have to quickly learn new rules in order to keep them all alive – if not safe and well.

First They Killed My Father is a tough book to get through. It’s horrifying that so many families went through this; loved ones dying of starvation or food poisoning, having to send older children away to work or be married in to prevent them having to join the army. Loung Ung’s family is just a snapshot of what hundreds and thousands of people went through in order to survive.

The fact that Loung Ung became a child solider when she was seven is appalling. The propaganda she and the other children had to listen to and recite, how Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were their saviours and the Vietnamese were evil and wouldn’t hesitate to kill them. The indoctrination these children had was effective as Loung Ung learnt to hate the Vietnamese, though she also hated the Khmer Rouge for what they’d done to her family, how they’d split them up and killed them. The when war arrives and Loung Ung and her family get caught up in it, she sees even more death and suffering.

It must’ve been a difficult experience for Loung Ung to put herself back in the mindset of that young scared, angry and starving child. How she went from being loved, in a home with a maid and cars and a telephone, to living in a shack and having to work in the fields. She does a great job at showing how a child would understand and have to compartmentalise these things, but then there’s some moments where there’s some added wisdom and understanding to her parent’s choices that’ve come from time and age.

First They Killed My Father is a difficult book to read, but it’s an important and powerful one. It’s about a country and a moment in history that I knew nothing about and it paints a very human picture to the unimaginable suffering that millions of Cambodians went through.

REVIEW: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard. They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalised racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

It sounds cliché to say reading They Called Us Enemy was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it was. It was infuriating to hear about some of the politicians and lawyers who set in motion the anti-Japanese sentiment have gone onto having very successful careers. It was sad to see what George’s parents went through and how they struggled to keep their family together and to do the best thing for them all. And it was wonderful to see that hope can survive in even the most terrible of circumstances, and how there are people who will help others even though they themselves may get hurt. I felt myself tear up multiple times reading They Called Us Enemy. Some tears were due to sadness and frustration that people were treated like this (and are still being treated like this) while other tears were of the joy of seeing George Takei meet with Gene Roddenberry and how Star Trek really had such a positive impact on George and the world.

They Called Us Enemy does a great job of showing both how a child would deal with having to leave their home and live in confined spaces with strict rules, and how adults would be scared because they have a better understanding over what is happening to them. There’s the childlike innocence about a lot of George’s experience, at least to begin with in some camps where they were obviously not pleasant but not as harsh as their later experiences.

I learnt so much about the internment of Japanese Americans from this book. I first heard about this event in history through following George Takei on Twitter, he said something about it that got me googling and I learnt about something I’d never heard of before when I was in my early twenties. A lot of quotes and moments in They Called Us Enemy will stick with me, but one that really stood out was: “That remains part of the problem – that we don’t know the unpleasant aspects of American history and therefore we don’t learn the lesson those chapters have to teach us. So we repeat them over and over again.”

I suppose I have the “excuse” of being British and growing up in the UK that I didn’t learn bout this part of American history in school, in fact in History class we barely touched on the attack on Pearl Harbour and it’s just the catalyst for America joining the war. Naturally all our history is UK-focused. But still, as George Takei says, it’s important to know our history – both the good and the bad – so we don’t make the same mistakes again.

They Called Us Enemy is an important and impactful book but it’s also a compelling story with wonderful art that perfectly captures the innocence of childhood. They Called Us Enemy is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone, whether they were a fan of George Takei or not. His childhood is, unfortunately, the childhood of tens of thousands Japanese Americans and it’s a story of 120,000 people that must be heard. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Rwanda: The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.

The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.

After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.

Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.

READ THE WORLD: Lithuania – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas.

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried.

Again, my Read the World Project is opening my eyes to parts of world history I never knew about. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to either Gulags (prison camps) or to sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union to provide free labour. Other people from different countries were also deported by the Soviet Union including Poles, Estonians and Latvians. Dalia’s account is tough to read but an important insight into a part of history that perhaps isn’t as well-known as it should be.

Shadows on the Tundra is about Dalia’s experience being deported with her mother and brother, the people they meet, and the terrible conditions they face in a work camp. The account spans a couple of years as Dalia and her fellow deportees are taken from their homes in trains, with no idea where they are going or why, to struggling to survive in the long icy winters in Siberia. The fact that people had the hope that they were being taken to America for a better life, especially when they were put onto boats, made what they were actually forced to experience even worse.

Dalia’s account doesn’t pull any punches. Her matter of fact way of describing the hardships they faced, the excruciating and thankless work they had to do in inhumane conditions and the way they were mistreated by those in charge, it all paints a vivid picture of human suffering.

There are moments though, how ever small and fleeting, in Shadows on the Tundra that show that Dalia and the friends and allies she made, had moments of fun or respite. They don’t last long though. With the malnourishment, the sickness, the frostbite, and the storms that bury everyone in the small barracks that they built themselves, everything looks incredibly bleak.

Shadows on the Tundra is often hard to read, in fact it’s truly devastating at times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived living in such terrible conditions on the edge of the Artic circle, having to steal wood in order to stay warm when the punishments for being caught was so severe. Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible account of how a young girl is forced to grow older than her years in order to survive. It will send a chill down your spine more than once.

READ THE WORLD: Burkina Faso – Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in a Dagara Village but when he was four years old he was kidnapped and taken to a Jesuit school where he remained for the next fifteen years. There he was indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship and learnt to read and write. When he made his escape and returned to his village, he had to go through a hard initiation to be able to belong with his community and learn their ways and beliefs.

I found Of Water and the Spirit to be an interesting and thought-provoking take on the interaction and conflict between spirituality and academia. Somé is a man who has multiple degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, so is a very knowledgeable man in that respect, but he also has a great spiritual belief. To me, as someone who is an atheist, it is impressive yet feels contradictory that an educated person can believe so whole-heartedly in the powers of a talisman or a medicine bag.

Somé has important things to say about culture, unity and learning from the mistakes of your ancestors. His discussion of ancestors is interesting as it seems like the Dagara people are very in tune with their past and their ancestors so they can learn and evolve, whereas in the West we often easily forget about the past and ignore any past wrongdoings. According to Somé this is why the West isn’t tolerant of those who are from different cultures and faiths, and it’s not until people look to their past and own up to past atrocities that they can move forward.

Of Water and the Spirit has some stunning imagery as Somé describes what he saw and felt as he went through the initiation. It’s magical and beautiful yet unsettling as boys get burnt or die during the initiation, but Somé also sees some beautiful things.

Considering Of Water and the Spirit was published in the mid-90s it’s disappointing that many of Somé’s observations on tolerance, understanding and belonging are still just as relevant twenty years later. Somé is a man of two worlds and he never fully feels like he fits in either of them, the “educated” West and his spiritual village, but what he does feel is a sense of purpose and a belief that it was his destiny to gain so much knowledge and use that to spread his beliefs and try to make people more understanding.

Of Water and the Spirit can feel a bit preachy at times, but it’s difficult to dislike the memoir because it is what he went through and believes he experienced. We are all different and believe in different things and it was interesting to learn about the culture and beliefs of the Dagara people.