The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Papua New Guinea: Cultural Refugees: Anthology of Poems by Julie Mota

This poetry collection is an exploration on whether cultural immersions and transitional processes are producing cultural refugees in our midst. The different perspectives represented in this collection opens up dialogue on how Papua New Guineans look at their society, the changes that are happening and challenges them to discuss, embrace and pave a way forward for further exploration on the themes raised.

The majority of the poems in this collection are in English but there are a few that aren’t. I googled “what is the language of Papua New Guinea” so I could say what language it was, but Wikipedia says there are 851 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea and though it’s likely to be Tok Pisin as it’s the most widely spoken, I don’t want name the wrong language that’s featured in this collection.

Cultural Refugees is split into five section each titled, Mother, Father, Children, Social Issues, and Petty Ramblings. The first three sections especially are both from that perspective and are about that type of person. It’s interesting to see that breakdown of family dynamics and compare poems in the Mother section to some in the Father section for example as you can see how differently those roles are seen.

Many of the poems in Cultural Refugees are super short with some being only a stanza long. While compositionally interesting the content of most of the short poems didn’t really resonate with me much. Some of the longer poems were in the Social Issues section and those are the poems I found more interesting because (as the title suggests) they were about events in and the society of Papua New Guinea.

I think Cultural Refugees is a poetry collection that would offer more impact if you are someone from Papua New Guinea, or maybe even the Oceania region in general, as you’d pick up the cultural references better.

READ THE WORLD – Puerto Rico: United States of Banana by Giannina Braschi

Narrated by Adriana Sananes.

Much like Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, I went to Goodreads to get the synopsis as I really wasn’t sure how to describe this book:
United States of Banana takes place at the Statue of Liberty in post-9/11 New York City, where Hamlet, Zarathustra, and Giannina are on a quest to free the Puerto Rican prisoner Segismundo. Segismundo has been imprisoned for more than one hundred years, hidden away by his father, the king of the United States of Banana, for the crime of having been born. But when the king remarries, he frees his son, and for the sake of reconciliation, makes Puerto Rico the fifty-first state and grants American passports to all Latin American citizens. This staggering show of benevolence rocks the global community, causing an unexpected power shift with far-reaching implications.

I listened to United States of Banana on audio and it was a very similar experience to listening to Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and I’m not sure if reading the physical book would have helped at all because United States of Banana is just weird.

Though I’m not sure the name of the person whose perspective the book started out from I was able to follow the first part of United States of Banana reasonably well. It was about what life was like in America (or the United States of Banana as it’s called throughout the book) for someone from Puerto Rico, and immigrants in general. How they have to know multiple languages and sometimes feel like they don’t belong in either place. It also follows this person as 9/11 happens and they witness the planes going into the Twin Towers. This part was both interesting and hard to listen to as it didn’t shy away from describing what they saw and felt, the panic, fear, confusion, and how then life after 9/11 changed.

It was when United States of Banana turned towards the Statue of Liberty, the prisoner Segismundo and had Hamlet, Zarathustra, and Giannina having philosophical debates and the Statue of Liberty being a living thing that could talk it became so hard to follow. I feel you needed to know the story of Hamlet (I only know the gist of it as it’s not a play I’ve seen/read) and who Zarathustra was (he was an Iranian prophet but I didn’t find that out until I googled the name) to really understand some of the tangents they went on and the people they mentioned.

The way United States of Banana is written and/or narrated means it’s like a stream of consciousness a lot of the time, or just rambling dialogue. When the characters are at Liberty Island it seems like instead of having the usual dialogue tags, it’d be like a play and say a character’s name, followed by what they said. This was difficult to follow as sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was a character saying the name of another character, or they were being introduced before saying their bit.

I think United States of Banana is more of a book about ideas and debates and theoretical situations with fictional character or ancient figures, rather than a book with a solid narrative. There are probably a lot of themes in this book and to begin with I liked what it was saying about immigrant life and how America often shifts the goalposts for people just trying to live their lives. However, in the end United States of Banana is hard to follow and is really weird. It may be a different experience when reading the physical book but overall, I found United States of Banana not a particularly enjoyable experience as it was difficult to retain the information given and follow any semblance of plot.

READ THE WORLD – Honduras: 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance by Melissa Cardoza

Translated by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

In 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance, feminist author and activist Melissa Cardoza tells 13 stories about women from the Honduran resistance in the aftermath of the June 28th, 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya.

I’ve said it before, but I really do learn so much about the world through my Read the World Project. I never knew that the first coup of the twenty-first century happened in Honduras and just eleven years ago. Maybe it’s naivety on my part, but I really thought other nations interfering with a countries politics and helping armies kidnap progressive Presidents was a thing of the past. Though, look at the 2016 US election and that proves that’s not the case.

13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance is very short and each of the stories are punchy and effective. Cardoza really brings to life the strength and determination of the people as they protested continuously for hundreds of days. Different people protested in different ways and these stories show their fear of violence from the police and military, but also the ways they fought back.

It’s the women in this resistance who are the focus of this book. What Melissa Cardoza does well is show all the different people from different backgrounds and how they find ways to protest. There are teachers and cleaners, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, Black women and trans women – they all learn from one another and it’s about the bonds they have during this time of resistance and uncertainty.

The edition of 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance I read was a bilingual edition, meaning you got to see the Spanish and English versions of the text side by side. As someone who’s relearning Spanish after studying it at A Level, it’s nice to be able to read a book in its original form, with the English right there. There was also footnotes to explain certain events or references which was very helpful.

I learnt a lot from 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance about the turmoil Honduras has gone through and the people who protested against an unjust coup. But also it reaffirms the strength and perseverance so many women have and how important their camaraderie is. It wasn’t just women in Honduras protesting, women organised in other Central American countries and joined the resistance. Whether it was a small group of half a dozen women, or a huge march of thousands, these women made sure their voices were heard, even when the risk of violent repercussions was so prevalent.

READ THE WORLD – Nicaragua: Life for Each by Daisy Zamora

Translated by Dinah Livingstone.

A poetry collection from Daisy Zamora, a Sandinista combatant during the liberation struggle who ran the clandestine Radio Sandino which broadcasted the call for a general insurrection in June 1979.

Life for Each is a super short poetry collection of only 70 pages. The collection is split into four parts. The first is a study of different people Zamora has met and connected with, the second has more personal poems, the third and fourth parts explore her family and friends and how they connect to her political love and anger.

Something I really liked about this poetry collection was how on the opposite side of the page to the English translation, was the poem in its original language. It was nice to be able to see the original text how the author wrote it and, if you know any of the language, being able to get some extra meaning from it. I’ve read a few books on my Read the World Project that have done this and I think it’s a great way to present a translated work.

I still find it difficult to write about poetry collections. As I said it’s a short collection and most of the poems themselves are short, only a few stanzas long, and to the point. They are punchy and affective but equally some of the longer poems are moving. “Lullaby for a Newborn Girl who Died” is about the death of Zamora’s newborn baby and it’s very bittersweet.

The poems in the latter half of the collection that are about politics, revolution, anger and desperation were the ones that I really liked. They’re small insights into political upheaval and how Zamora viewed those events. The final poem in the collection – “Families of CIA Victims Protest Outside the United States Embassy” – does a great job at showing the desperation of the families and the cruelty of those in the Embassy because they really just don’t care. This poem, like a lot of them in the collection, is passionate and heartfelt and eye-opening.

READ THE WORLD – Ukraine: Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko

Translated by Halyna Hryn. Narrated by Angela Dawe.

I had go to Goodreads to get a synopsis because I really wasn’t sure how to sum up this book, so here we go:
Narrated in first-person streams of thought, the female narrator is visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard and her exposure to American values and behaviours conspires with her yearning to break free from Ukrainian conventions. In her despair over a recently ended affair, she turns her attention to the details of her lover’s abusive behaviour. In detailing the power her Ukrainian lover wielded over her, and in admitting the underlying reasons for her attraction to him, she begins to see the chains that have defined her as a Ukrainian woman.

Honestly not sure what to make of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. I listened to it on audio and I’m not sure if that helped or hindered my experience of reading it. The narrative seemed to jump back and forth in time with no real clear signposts as to where we were in the main characters life. It’s a rambling narration of her thoughts and feelings about love, relationships, and what it means to be Ukrainian. It’s hard to keep up while listening to the audio so I have no idea if it’d be easier to follow if physically reading it.

Also, while the Goodreads synopsis say it’s in first-person, sometimes the stream of thought goes into second or third person as well which can make things more confusing. Though I suppose it’s also a way to show the narrators distance from some of her life experiences, or she’s reliving them in her memory and can now have a different take on events due to her new understanding of herself or the situation.

The discussions about being Ukrainian and the culture and history and language was one of the most interesting parts of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex to me. It was a way to learn about a country that had its struggles and a culture of fear and repression and how that affected its people, especially women. Then seeing the differences between life in America and Ukraine and how it opens the narrator’s eyes to a new way of thinking was interesting too. She experiences a clash of cultures and it makes her rethink her relationship and how it wasn’t good for her for a number of reasons.

The sex scenes and musing on sex is graphic a lot of the time. She uses harsh and sometimes vulgar language to describe the act and it can be uncomfortable to listen to, not only because of the sexual content but how she sees herself when it comes to sex. It’s in those scenes that it’s really clear that her relationship isn’t a good or healthy one and the way her partner treats her, during sex and generally, is not OK. From this relationship she has an almost warped sense of self that she’s then re-examining once she’s out of it in relation to culture and heritage.

Much like The Naked Woman, I feel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex could do from being a book read with others so you can then discuss it. There’s a lot of themes in it but the stream of conscious narrative along with the random time jumps makes it difficult to follow and appreciate what this novel was trying to say.

READ THE WORLD – Antigua and Barbuda: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Narrated by Robin Miles.

An essay drawing on Kincaid’s experiences of growing up in Antigua and how the Antigua tourists may see is vastly different to the one Antiguan’s live in.

A Small Place is a piece of creative non-fiction. Jamaica Kincaid refers to the reader as if they were a tourist visiting the island, describing what they may see, what they think of the beautiful beaches, the food, and the people. But soon after describing how wonderful everything can look to a tourist, a little bit of paradise, she goes onto talk about the parts of Antigua that a tourist wouldn’t notice or understand. The corruption, the dilapidated schools and hospitals, the places that the Black Antiguans are not allowed. The club houses, the government buildings, certain beaches. She delves into the history of Antigua and how the British shaped the island and the long-lasting impact of colonisation.

I think having an essay that’s full of dark humour as well as hard-hitting truth’s that are full of anger, is a really effective way to describe what a country and its people are like, and how slavery, segregation, and now tourism can affect them. It makes this place, this ten-by-twelve-mile island, and its history easy to understand and it also makes you think. Especially as it goes into the effects of tourism on the country, how there are certain things tourists are blind to like political corruption and how people’s homes and communities are not at all like the fancy hotels a tourist may stay in.

A Small Place also has autobiographical elements of Jamaica Kincaid’s childhood. She recounts the experience of having an Irish schoolteacher, the casual racism she and her classmates experienced without being able to put the word “racism” towards it as European rule or influence had been so prevalent on the island.

A Small Place was written in 1988 so things may have changed a bit for Antiguans over the past thirty years but then again, it may have not with the prevalence of racism and corruption in the world. A Small Place is a great insight into how colonialism can affect such a small nation and how tourism can be just as harmful when the best land and the most money goes towards tourism-related endeavours rather than the communities. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Djibouti: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated by David and Nicole Ball.

Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, returns to his native land to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. Meanwhile, a shadowy, threatening figure imprisoned in an island cell seems to know Djibril’s every move.

I’m not sure what to make of this book to be perfectly honest. It’s a whole mixture of genres and I’m not sure that works a lot of the time. There are elements of a spy novel, of epistolary novel with Djibril’s notes on his findings in Djibouti, and of political thriller and crime fiction.

Djibril has returned to his home country about fifteen years after he left and made a life for himself in Canada. He’s had little to no contact with his family in all that time. Now back in Djibouti, he’s researching the political landscape for his firm as it’s an area of strategic importance for the transportation of the world’s oil supply.

There are little insights into what Djibouti and its people are like, however at the same time it feels like it could be any impoverished country. Djibril reflects on what the country was like when he was growing up and what he’s seeing now, but it’s written by and for someone who already knows the place. I’m not saying every book that’s set in a different country to my own needs to give a lot of descriptions or back story, but having gone into Passage of Tears knowing nothing about of Djibouti, it feels a shame that I have learnt nothing about the country – or at least nothing that has stuck with me.

I think it’s Passage of Tears’ writing style that I struggled with. The chapters alternate between Djbril’s point of view where his thoughts often jump back and forth between what he’s looking into now for his company, and his childhood memories, and an unnamed person who is imprisoned and appears to be talking to the reader, or Djibril. As the story progresses you can piece together who the imprisoned person is likely to be, but he too starts to go onto different tangents and it’s hard to focus in on the present narrative and what is supposed to be happening in this meandering plot. Extracts of writing about Walter Benjamin appear in the imprisoned man’s section and Walter Benjamin is a name I recognised but didn’t know who he was so that was a bit confusing as well, especially when towards the end of the book, half of each chapter seemed to be about him, not what’s currently happening in Djibouti.

I think they’re themes in Passage of Tears, but they often seemed muddled due to the characters voices not being strong. Themes of the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and globalisation are there but the only one that really stood out is how America has historically meddled in so many countries history’s and politics that it’s no wonder there’s reactionary action from extremist groups.

Overall for such a reasonably short book (just over 200 pages), Passage of Tears was a drag to read a lot of the time and didn’t have characters that were easy to engage with.

READ THE WORLD – Trinidad and Tobago: Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

A poetry collection that is a journey which includes coming to terms with sexual violence and loss, with celebrating love and connection, and bearing witness to the world that shaped that journey.

I don’t often read poetry, mainly because I feel I don’t “get it” and don’t get enjoyment from it. With Difficult Fruit however, I found the poems to be affecting and easy to connect with and understand.

The poems deal with growing up and loss, how someone feels when burying a friend or dealing with an assault on their body and mind. Some poems are quite upsetting or uncomfortable as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities people go through, especially women as they grow up.

The poems in the collection are short, often no more than a page long and they are written in different styles. Some with one long stanza, while others are broken up in parts.

One of my favourite poems in the collection was “The Hoodie Stands Witness for Trayvon Martin” which personifies the hoody that Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012, wears. It’s short and unsettling and really affecting, especially as it’s about a real event and person that’s shocking and unjust. I don’t think I’d ever read a poem before that was so obviously about a certain event or person and it made me really stop and consider the poem and what it was saying.

I often find poems easy to just read and move onto the next one without much thought because they’re short and are about different things. However, with Difficult Fruit I found myself stopping to consider the meaning of a lot of the poems as while they were short, they were impactful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Uruguay: The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

Translated by Kit Maude.

The novella follows Rebeca Linke and her attempt to live her life how she wishes and free herself from a hostile society.

The Naked Woman was first published in Uruguay in 1950 and I can see why it caused a stir then. It depicts female nudity and empowerment, and the violent reaction a whole town has towards that. The Naked Woman is one of those books that I wish I’d read at university, or as part of a book club, because it’s a story that would be great to discuss with others as there’s so many interesting themes and moments in it. There’s fantastical elements and dream like sequences, making it difficult to puzzle out what’s real and what’s in Rebeca’s mind, especially at the beginning. In part, because it’s hard to believe why a woman would wander naked in the woods and fields and be so without her inhibitions.

The Naked Woman is a short but powerful story. It shows the fragility and viciousness of the male ego and how it can corrupt the society they’re a part of. The men of the town have a violent and almost primitive reaction to Rebeca’s nudity. It’s horrifying as so many of them, both young and old, become obsessed with the idea of her and disgusted by her. It’s as if they feel Rebeca has the audacity to wander the fields naked and in doing so, she is being sinful, and when they look upon her, they are too, and they can’t cope with that.

The Naked Woman presents a lot of ideas about feminism, sex, religion, and power. It doesn’t really give any answers to all these themes or solid explanations for Rebeca and other characters actions, which is as intriguing as it is frustrating. This is another reason I think it’d be a great book to discuss with others.

The writing in The Naked Woman is evocative and often fantastical. The Naked Woman reminded me a bit of the few books I’ve read by Angela Carter, so if you’ve read and liked Carter, then you should try Somers work. The Naked Woman is a really interesting story and it’s one that will stick with me for a while, even if I’d have liked more answers. 4/5.