non-fiction

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 Timor-Leste: From Timor-Leste to Australia: Seven Families, Three Generations Tell Their Stories edited by Jan Tresize

A collection of stories and poems from seven families who recount their lives in Timor-Leste and how events like the Japanese invasion during WWII, being a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, civil war between different political parties once Timor-Leste is decolonised, Indonesia invading, and finally the country gaining its independence after the people vote for it in a referendum in 1999.

Like many countries I’ve read about in my Read the World Project, Timor-Leste is one that I didn’t know anything about so From Timor-Leste to Australia was a real eye-opening and informative read. For each of the seven families there’s at least two people telling their story; sometimes their siblings, or more commonly it’s a parent and then a child. That way the reader can see how these huge events affected different generations as sometime the children were ten years old or younger when they were forced to flee their homes and move to countries far from home so for some it seemed like an adventure and the realities on their situation was lost on them.

Having members of seven different families share their experience is a good way to get a broad idea of what happened to the Timorese people. Some families were wealthier or had connections to the government while others were poor and had little support, but often they all ended up in similar situations, running from their homes and uncertain of what the future held. Those who stayed in Timor-Leste throughout the Indonesian invasion naturally had different experiences to those who managed to get to other countries. So many people still wanted to get back to their home country though, and how some of these people described what they feel is their nationality was interesting. Some now are Australian residents but feel more Portuguese because they spent their formative years there, others feel Timorese first and foremost but still feel at home in Australia or Portugal.

It was interesting to see how these families got displaced with some being separated by loved ones for years and how they adapted to their new countries. One family was in Mozambique for a time as that was also a former Portuguese colony before the revolution there forced them to flee to Portugal. A lot of the families ended up in Portugal for years, sometimes over a decade or more. This was because Timor-Leste was a form Portuguese colony and some of the families had Portuguese parents or grandparents so had connections in the country that could vouch for them. Others ended up there as it was where was deemed to be safest, living in refugee camps for years.

By the end of each of the families’ stories, most of them had ended up settled in Australia, where communities of Timorese people had begun to thrive. This was due to the Australians fighting against the Japanese in WWII and Timorese people would often hide and protect Australian soldiers when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

From Timor-Leste to Australia was quite a sad read at times as so many people in these families were imprisoned, killed, or separated from loved ones for years. People wen through such hardships and nearly every time it seemed like things would get better for the Timorese, something else would happen. The relief and joy when the people of Timor-Leste successfully voted for their country’s independence was palpable in every family member’s recollection. But the resilience of these people and how families managed to stay connected even across oceans was impressive – especially as lot of this happened from around 1942-1999, a time where phones and technology to keep in touch were not how it is today.

REVIEW: Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

A full-speed-ahead oral history of the nearly two-decade making of the cultural phenomenon Mad Max: Fury Road – with more than 130 new interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and director George Miller, from the pop culture reporter for The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan.

While I generally love films and learning titbits about how they were made, there’s very few that I’d read a whole book on. In fact, Blood, Sweat & Chrome is only the second book I’ve read about a film’s journey to the big screen. The first was The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson which I read when I was at university and thoroughly enjoyed. I think the reasons I sought out, read and enjoyed these two books are pretty much the same. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite films of all time and a formative influence as I saw the first one when I was 10 years old and while I haven’t watched Mad Max: Fury Road as many times, it’s a film that blew me away when I first saw it and every time I rewatch it I’m even more impressed by its attention to detail. They are both films that in some ways shouldn’t exist, or if they did, they have almost no right to be as excellent as they are, so hearing from the people who were involved with making them, sometimes for years, even decades, is just fascinating.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome is a book I got in the post on Saturday and if I’d started it earlier that day, I would’ve read it all in one sitting. From the get go it was just so interesting and incredibly readable. Buchanan adds context and description where needed but mostly the story of how this film was made is told from various people’s perspective. Just about everyone is interviewed for this book, cast and crew, including the kind of people you’d never normally hear from like VFX data wrangler Shyam “Toast” Yadav.

So many times, I found myself with a smile on my face as the stories about the ingenuity of the crew who were making these huge vehicles or the stunt team as they worked with the cast and crew to make things look as real as possible. The fact no one was killed or even seriously hurt during the production is a testament to the director and the stunt team as while they wanted these magnificent and ridiculous stunts, they also wanted to make it safe for everyone.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road is a great book for anyone who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road and wants to learn more about it, but I also think it’s a great book for people who are introduced in the film industry in general. It’s not shy about how studio interference can cause conflict between the director and their vision, or how long a film can take to be made and all the setbacks that a cast and crew can face. 5/5.

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 – Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir by Sophia Al-Maria

A funny and wry coming-of-age memoir about growing up in between American and Gulf Arab cultures as Al-Maria shares the struggles of being raised by an American mother and Bedouin father while shuttling between homes in the Pacific Northwest and the Middle East.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth begins with the story of Al-Maria’s parents. Of how her father came to America and how they met, fell in love and were happy for a while. Then in goes to Al-Maria’s childhood and the start of feeling like she belonged in two places and none at all. Growing up she and her young sister spent years with her mother and grandmother in her home on a small farm, then they moved with their mother to Doha to live in a large apartment their father had though they rarely saw him, instead spending time with all the women on their dad’s side of the family; aunts and cousins.

Al-Maria in part doesn’t seem to know who she is because she moves between America and the Middle East at major milestones in her life. As a young teen in America, she tries to express herself but the things she’s interested in (fashion and music) disappoint and sometimes anger her mother. When she goes back to the Middle East as a teen she discovers new restrictions on her life, especially once she starts her period and she’s no longer allowed to go to certain parts of the house where the men are.

Al-Maria grows up in the 80s and 90s and she’s at university in Egypt when 9/11 happens. Her university is an international school with a whole mixture of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs from different countries, so after the attacks you feel the repercussions on all these people in a different way that white Western people did.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is really interesting because it seems like Al-Maria not only has a culture clash but a personality clash with her parents, her mother especially. It’s like she’s expected to know how to act in both societies but there are things she’s never taught and neither side of the family rarely think they should – she’s just expected to know things. Her not knowing where she belongs, how she feels like an alien when people can’t easily classify “what” she is based on her looks or her level of English or Arabic, comes out in anger, confusion and just general teenage angst.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth doesn’t offer any simple or easy answers to Al-Maria’s turmoil. Her childhood and upbringing weren’t easy and while as an outside perspective you can think of what you’d have done differently in her position, or even in her parent’s position, these were the choices she made. Sometimes they were reckless or thoughtless while sometimes they were a conscious decision.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is told with a wry sense of humour. There are things that happen in Al-Maria’s life that are sad or shocking but they are told with a degree of distance to them. It’s is as because she doesn’t feel connected to either part of her heritage, it’s difficult for the reader to connect with what she experienced. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Translated by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner.

The story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov from childhood to his early twenties as he grows up under Stalin’s rule and how the collectivisation of agriculture forever changed his peoples’ nomadic lifestyle and caused a famine that killed over a million Kazakhs.

The Silent Steppe is the kind of historical memoir that’s written in a way that’s pretty easy to read and easy to get engrossed in. It’s not necessarily a literary masterpiece but it manages to capture so many emotions so well and it’s a really interesting insight into a time and a culture I knew nothing about. The Silent Steppe is split into three parts: “Class Enemy” which focuses on what the nomadic life was like, how it was forced to change, and how Shayakhmetov’s father was branded a “kulak” (a well-off peasant and therefore an enemy of the people) and imprisoned, “Famine” which covers the 1932-34 famine, the build up to the disaster and how eventually things started getting a bit better, and “War” when Shayakhmetov was a young man and joined the Red Army to fight in World War Two.

Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 and for his first seven years or so his life was normal, helping his father to look after the animals, travelling hundreds of miles with the rest of the family and the village as the seasons turned. Obviously a life not without hardships but positively idyllic compared to what followed.

What The Silent Steppe does well is not shy away from the horrors of what Shayakhmetov experienced. From the age of eight he was having to travel for dozens or even hundreds miles on his own in search of news of his father, or to learn about other family member. He had to do so much at such a young age as his mother either had to stay at home to look after his siblings or to find work so they could eat. The famine and its effects on him, his family and the people is described in vivid detail and it’s often unsettling. Shayakhmetov combines the personal with the factual almost seamlessly as he gives facts and figures on how the collective farms worked (or more often didn’t) and the cruelty and short-sightedness of government officials who repossessed people’s livestock, belongings and even their homes. It’s hard not to get angry when you read how livestock was taken from people and when the newly set up farms couldn’t deal with them, they slaughtered them and then the meat was just left to rot – not given to or even sold to the people. How Shayakhmetov and his mother managed to survive so much, like the fact they were homeless for so long and unable to settle anywhere due to being the family of a kulak, is a testament to their resilience but also a lot of luck and kindness from others. There’s so many other people mentioned, family and acquaintances, who didn’t survive the famine and a lot of the time who managed to survive and who didn’t was down to where people happened to be living and who or what they knew. Just pure chance.

One think that sticks out in Shayakhmetov’s story is how hospitable the nomadic Kazakh are. Their whole culture was forced to change under Stalin’s rule but so many people would still help him and his family when they could, and his family would always help others. They whole country and millions of people were forced to change and for the most part they kept their core values. Or at least, it took the combination of famine, war, and economic struggles for people to start to change.

The Silent Steppe is a really interesting book that covers a place and time I knew little about and shows how far-reaching Stalin and his policies were. How a whole nomadic culture was forced to change and never returned to what it was in such a relative short space of time is amazing – and not in a good way. The Silent Steppe is sad, informative but also a little hopeful as it really demonstrates the power of community – something the Stalin-regime tried to enforce in a structured way when it was already there.