The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Malta: In the Name of the Father (and of the Son) by Immanuel Mifsud

Translated by Albert Gatt.

After the funeral, a grieving son starts reading the diary his dead father had kept during the Second World War. As he turns each page, searching for a trace of the man he remembers, a portrait of an individual unfolds; a figure made both strange and familiar through the handwritten observations, the yearnings and the confessions.

At under 70 pages this novella manages to be impactful and almost whimsical at the same time. It can be a little hard to follow at times as the unnamed narrator tends to jump back and forth in his memories of his father. Sometimes he’s recounting a story of when he was a young child, and what he felt in that moment, while in others he’s then looking back on an event with through the eyes of his adult self, offering a different perspective to the one he had as a child.

The first chapter was the most interesting to me as that contained extracts from the father’s diary from when he joined the British army, in the King’s Own Malta Regiment in December 1939 at age nineteen. A lot of it was just the everyday goings on of life in the army but the diary is the springboard for the son’s thoughts about his father’s time in the military and how that shaped him as a man.

What it means to be a man and how soldiers and men don’t cry is a big factor. How the father’s attitude towards his son for any perceived weakness, how the son likes the feeling of tears running down his face, and how he only ever saw his father cry twice and both times his father had tried to hide it from everyone. It’s clear to see how this strict masculinity has affected the son and caused him to rethink certain elements of himself. It’s something he also muses about, masculinity and the role of a father, when he has his own son.

One thing that was a bit unusual, was how the narrator would bring in quotes or ideas from different writers and theorists and then relate them to his father and his memories of him. This little novella had footnotes with references to textbooks and it made the reading experience a real mix of things.

With the theory stuff it sometimes seemed academic, then there was the historical aspect, giving a brief rundown of the political landscape in Malta and how his father interacted with it, and then there’s the family and relationship history making it a condensed memoir. All these elements means that when reading it, there’s a distance to In the Name of the Father (and of the Son). It’s like the narrator is looking through the fog of memory, trying to work through his grief and thoughts. It’s an interesting and thoughtful reading experience and one that cant help but leave you feeling a little melancholy. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tonga: We Are the Ocean by Epeli Hau’ofa

We Are the Ocean is a collection of essays, fiction, and poetry by Epeli Hau’ofa, whose writing over the past three decades has consistently challenged prevailing notions about Oceania and prescriptions for its development.

I found We Are the Ocean fascinating. It’s been a long time (since my uni days) since I’ve read academic essays, so I was a little apprehensive how I’d find these but quickly I realised my fears were unfounded. These essays were very readable and Hau’ofa’s voice came through clearly. As a lot of the essays were originally speeches at conferences, or adapted from a speech, that easy, conversational voice came through a lot.

I found these essays really interesting. I’ll readily admit I know little to nothing about the Oceanic region and the various island nations in that part of the world, so I learnt a lot from these essays. A lot of them were about the anthropology, history and financial structure of the countries in the Oceania/Pacific region. The relationship between the smaller island nations and Australia and New Zealand were a big part of it. How the trade worked, and how culture had been shared between the various countries and how people’s identities in some of the island countries were shaped by the influence of Australia and New Zealand rather than major western countries like America.

It was all super interesting and understandable because there was also talk of self-fulfilling prophesies as young people are told things like you’ll never amount to much in your home country unless you get an education abroad – so then is it of little surprise why the people in charge of banks, government etc aren’t fully educated in their home country. In fact, there’s often people of European, Australian, and New Zealander decent in positions of power due to colonial history.

The talk of anthropological studies and how historically anthropologists have been white and European and when they came to these countries, they made their own observations and didn’t think to make the effort to consult the native people who were experts in their own traditions. Hau’ofa being one of the only anthropologists from that region means he feels a great weight of responsibility of expanding the textbooks and the whole area of study.

The couple of short stories in this collection are kind of satirical and because they come after the majority of the essays it means you can pick up more of the references to the things and attitudes Hau’ofa is highlighting.

We Are the Ocean was incredibly interesting and easy to read. If you’re interested in history, social and cultural studies and how that all can interact to a person’s or country’s identity then this collection of work is for you. I learnt a lot from it and I’m please I read it. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Grenada: The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins

The Ladies are Upstairs is a collection of short stories. The first is about Rain Darling and the following ten follow Doux Thibaut who from the 1930s to the new century negotiates a hard life on the Caribbean island of Paz. As a child there is the shame of poverty and illegitimacy, and there are the hazards of sectarianism in an island divided between Catholic and Protestant, the rigidity of a class and racial system where, if you are Black, your white employer is always right. When Doux is an old lady moving between the homes of her children in Boston and New York, she wonders whether they and her grandchildren really appreciate what her life has taught her.

The first story, “Rain Darling”, is about fifty pages long and sees three women travelling to a hospital to see another, that being Rain. It then goes back and forth between Rain’s present in the hospital and her past from childhood to teen years to adulthood and how one secret shatters her whole world. Rain’s life is a sad one, stuck with an aunt who doesn’t care or nurture her, forcing her to leave school at a young age even though Rain is bright, not being able to be with her mother, sister or her beloved father. It’s really quite depressing.

What makes Rain’s story even sadder is how it’s juxtaposed with Doux’s. They both live lives that have ups and downs but how they, and their families, respond to those hazards of life is vastly different.

Doux is headstrong even as a child and will stand up for herself. She’s also smart and capable but she has teachers and family who support and encourage her. Looking at Rain and Doux it’s easy to see how vastly different a child’s life can be if they have people who care about them. There still may be issues like money, and Doux’s mother can be strict, but the fact that Doux gets to have an education and then goes to have a family of her own shows how life can be a little easier when you’ve got a firm foundation from childhood.

The ten short stories about Doux follow her as she grows up. In most she’s the main character and the story is from her point of view but in some it’s about the people around her including her children and even her midwife. There are also some stories that get a bit creepy which I wasn’t expecting. They’re like short horror stories as a woman finds an abandoned child on the street at night who is not what they seem or a woman who disappears from a car. It’s those kinds of supernatural tales that are passed on as something a friend’s uncle saw once and they’re quite disconcerting after the more standard family drama type stories.

Both Rain and Doux live in Paz, a stand in for Grenada, and the way the landscape and towns are described paint a vivid picture in your head. The fact that characters speak patois and other colloquial languages make them seem more real. Also, how language and speech patterns change over time, especially in Doux’s stories that span sixty or more years, helps show how people and society changes.

The Ladies are Upstairs is an interesting short story collection and consuming Rain and Doux’s stories back-to-back make each of them more layered and interesting.

READ THE WORLD – Cyprus: Selfie and Other Stories by Nora Nadjarian

A collection of twenty-five short stories that are narratives about women on journeys of self-discovery.

First of all I want to give a shout out to the publisher, Roman Books. I love a pretty cover as much as the next person, but the actual packaging of the book was something I don’t think I’ve had before. It’s a cover that feels really nice to hold, it’s all buttery and smooth and I just really liked that and don’t think I’d ever really noticed the texture of a book before.

Anyway. Onto the contents of the book!

Twenty-five stories in a 88 page book means some are super short. I think the longest was seven pages, a few were only a page in length and the rest were somewhere in between. A lot of them certainly packed a punch while being so short. The writing in a lot of them have a dreamlike quality to it. It would lead you in one direction and in the final sentence or paragraph would reveal something that would make you look at the whole story differently. It’s really quite impressive as that was often all done in less than three pages.

The stories are all about or from the points of view of women. Some are written in first person, others in third, and they are all about love, loss, and relationships. Whether it’s romantic relationships or familial ones, it shows the different aspects of women’s relationships and how they can change depending on age. “Origami” is about a ten-year-old girl learning that her father left her and her mother before she was born and how that reshapes her entire outlook on both her parents while “Lemon, Stars” is about two sisters.

A lot of the stories have a melancholy tinge to them, and some are downright sad. “Mrs Gaslight” is, as you might be able to guess from the title, about a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship, and how even if her sister sees the problems, she refuses to. It’s the second story in the collection and I think having it so soon into the book makes it even more impactful.

Selfie and Other Stories is a well-written and interesting short story collection. It’s been a long time since I’ve read short stories that are this short and I’m always impressed how the author can create an atmosphere in so few words.

READ THE WORLD – Guyana: In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

After false starts in teaching and social work, Melda Hayley finds her mission in fostering the damaged children of the first generation of Black settlers in a deeply racist 1950s Britain. But though Melda finds daily uplift in her work, her inner life starts to come apart. Her brother Arnie has married a white woman and his defection from the family and the distress Melda witnesses in the children she fosters causes her own buried wounds to weep. But though the past drives Melda towards breakdown, she finds strength there too, especially in the memories of the loving, supporting women of the yards.

In Praise of Love and Children is a story about love. Not romantic love, though some secondary characters are in relationships, but familial love. The love Melda does (or doesn’t) feel from certain members of her family are a big part of this story, likewise how she has a huge capacity to love the many children she fosters. Some might be only for a few weeks while others find a home with her for years.

I’m not sure how to write about this without coming across ignorant and/or racist but I’ll give it a go. When Melda moves to London and stays with her older brother Arnie she meets his girlfriend Trudi (who later becomes his wife and mother of his child), a white woman who had escaped to Switzerland after her family was killed in Germany when she was a teenager. Melda has an instant dislike for Trudi and it’s clear it’s because Trudi is a white woman and Melda feels she is turning Arnie into something he is not and distancing him from their family. I found those passages hard to read as Melda has a visceral hatred for Trudi. It took me (a white woman) by surprise and it did make me a little uncomfortable. After thinking about it though, I think it made me uncomfortable more because it surprised me. I hadn’t really seen this hatred in a book like this before. I think it’s because in media – films, books and TV – that’s set in the past, so often the Black characters are shown to be the better people in the face of racism, they turn the other cheek or do their best to ignore it and not interact. In In Praise of Love and Children Melda isn’t passive, she knows her own mind and is unafraid to show hostility towards Trudi, even when at times it seems like Trudi is generally trying to be friendly towards her future sister-in-law.

It’s interesting because the conflict between Melda and Trudi becomes this underlying element throughout the whole book. While it is tied to Melda’s view on white people, it’s also tied to how she sees and feels about her family. Family is very important to her and while she believes that the children must always defer to the parents and they are their family first, with Arnie he starts to see Trudi as his priority rather than his parents and siblings that are either in London or New York.

I’ve read books, and seen a lot of film/TV, set in post-segregation America but I haven’t really experienced as much media about Black Britons post-WWII. Starting out set in the 1950s and spanning nearly two decades, In Praise of Love and Children is a small snapshot into life in Britain for the children of what we now call the Windrush generation. People from former British Empire and Commonwealth countries, especially those in the Caribbean, were encouraged to come to the UK to live and work and make a home here. There’s the little racist comments Melda hears about the few Black children in her class from the white headteacher or other staff, and there’s the mention of the culture shock parents have in bringing up their children without the support of a wider community that they had in their villages back home. There’s a line I really liked, and it can (unfortunately) be applied to people looking for a better life for themselves and their family today: “Immigrant workers went from having a firm identity – of family, village, island or religion – to having only a nominal one: foreigner.”

I ended up really enjoying In Praise of Love and Children. I thought Melda’s capacity for love after growing up being abused by her mother was admirable. There’s flashbacks to her childhood and the care and support she got from the women of the yards near her childhood home, was enough to help her when her mother’s love wasn’t there. She is a principled character and may verge on cutting of her nose to spite her face territory, but she is also caring and just. For a pretty short book (it’s under 150 pages) In Praise of Love and Children manages to pack an emotional punch as Melda tries to discover who she is and make a success of her dream to foster and care for such troubled children. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Mongolia: The End of the Dark Era by Tseveendorjin Oidov

Translated by Simon Wickhamsmith.

The End of the Dark Era is the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States, and one of the few avant-garde collections to have come from the vast steppes of Mongolia.

One of my favourite things with translated poetry is when on one page is the poem in the original language and on the opposite page is the translation. Even if you can’t read the original language, or make much sense of it at all when it’s in a completely different alphabet like here, it’s cool to see how the poem was originally laid out, how many lines there were and how much space it took up.

The first half of The End of the Dark Era is poems from between 1975-1983 and they’re all about a page long. A lot of them are about nature, or paint vivid scenes of the ocean, rocks or forests through them. There’s a distanced or almost dreamlike quality to a lot of them, and some feel like little mini stories being told to you.

The second half of the collection is called “Advantgardism” and is a collection of short fictions. Each poem or fiction is no more than five lines long and each are accompanied by an illustration by the author on the opposite page. The illustrations are all line drawings of horses in different poses. Personally, I found the illustrations more interesting than the writing, they were just unlike any illustrations I’d really seen before and they manage to make the horse look animated which is impressive. Though I did like how the words and image complemented each other.

I think the poems of Tseveendorjin Oidov are not for me. A few are brief but effective, but most seem to be the kind of poetry that I just don’t understand or would better understand if I had someone to guide me through them. Apparently, Tseveendorjin Oidov is considered to be the first Mongolian modernist and modernism is something I could never really get my head around – even when I studied it a bit at university. Maybe if you’re a modernist fan you should try some translated Mongolian modernist poetry and see how that compares to Western modernism writing.

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

READ THE WORLD – Federated States of Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

A short poetry collection from Pohnpeian poet, Emelihter Kihleng.

I think this was a very interesting collection. A lot of the poems were almost short stories or small snapshots at life, and I feel I learnt things about the Federated States of Micronesia from these poems, which is an achievement considering how short they are. For instance, I never knew about the connection between the Federated States of Micronesia and America, that many people live or work or have connections to Hawaii especially. In the poem “Destiny Fulfilled?” it covers how people from the various islands joined the US Armed Forces and its “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also liked how it gets its title from a Destiny’s Child album and uses lyrics from the song “Soldier” to show the differences between pop culture and actual war.

I liked how the poet had footnotes in the poems, explaining a word or phrase that was in a different language, or adding context when a poem is inspired by real events. I believe Pohpeian is the language used throughout the collection, with many of the poems being in a combination of English and Pohpeian. Some are like a dialogue between two characters and there’s the English translation after each phrase, while in others it’s just the odd word or line that’s not in English.

The poems in My Urohs are about the people, the culture, the food, and the connections and differences between people who live on different islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and their different languages, stories and culture. It’s an interesting little collection and a great insight into a place I’d only ever heard of and knew nothing about.

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.