The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Orphaned teenager Okomo lives under the watchful eyes of her grandparents and dreams about finding her father. All she knows is that he’s a “scoundrel” and she’s forbidden to seek him out. She enlists the help of other outcasts; her gay uncle Marcelo and a gang of “indecent” girls. With them she finds comfort, falls in love and rebels against the rigid norms of Fang culture.

La Bastarda is a very short book, it’s only 88 pages so it’s very easy to read it in one sitting, and it’s the first book from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English which is pretty cool.

La Bastarda is a coming of age story about a girl who is trying to understand the various traditions her people have and what that means for her and her desire to know her father. Okomo is quite a naïve seventeen-year-old which is probably due to the sheltered life she’s led, she’s unsure about so many relationships in her life and is often clueless about the different rules her culture has.

I liked the relationship that forms between Okomo and Dina. It’s interesting as Okomo’s uncle Marcelo is known as a man-woman because he sleeps with men and refuses to “do his duty” and get his infertile brothers’ wife pregnant to make sure the family has a son; however their community doesn’t have a word for lesbian so it’s as if Okomo, Dina and the rest of the girls don’t exist.

I enjoyed La Bastarda. It’s a quick, easy read about a culture that’s complete different to my own. It’s an episodic story and while Okomo is quite a young seventeen-year-old, I did want her to find her own place, whether that was in her society or not, with people who care about her.

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READ THE WORLD – Belgium: Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke

Translated by Liz Waters.

Alphonse is a friendly and observant former musician, who has left Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to live closer to her parents in the rural district of Westhoek. It’s a place that has open fields and more World War I graves than almost anywhere else in Europe. Alphonse starts a new life as a painter and decorator, and he becomes entwined in so many peoples lives. But when he, Cat and one of his clients help a group of Afghans and Syrians at a makeshift refugee camp, he learns that not all of the locals appreciate what they’re doing.

Somewhat surprisingly the first chapter in Thirty Days is chapter 30, and each chapter number decreases. While it’s a slow book to get going, this adds to the fact that the story appears to be building to something – and it certainly does build to something unexpected. Plus, like the title suggests, it each chapter is a day, something I didn’t register to begin with.

I really liked Alphonse, but I could see why his partner Cat would get frustrated with him. He’s a painter and decorator so he goes to various people’s homes to do a job but there’s something about him that causes his clients to offload a lot of their thoughts or secrets on him. He becomes involved in so many people’s lives and Cat doesn’t always like that as it takes his time and thoughts away from her and their life together. He’s a guy that’s almost too nice for his own good but his niceness is never off-putting or eyeroll-inducing.

Alphonse is victim to a lot of racism ranging from micro aggressions, being asked where he’s really from after first saying Brussels, to full on hostility, such as when a client’s neighbour accuses him of trying to break into their house. As Thirty Days is from Alphonse’s point of view, it never stops and describes how he or Cat look like, so you get to know him without any preconceptions meaning when he does experience racism it’s more of a shock and an interesting way of presenting what he faces.

Surprisingly, Alphonse doesn’t encounter the refugee camp until the last third of the book. Instead, the clients he has and his relationships with them, and his girlfriend and their friends and family, is the main focus of a lot of this story.

Thirty Days is beautifully written and it’s a moving story. The themes of being a good person, helping others but still making sure you don’t give up all of yourself are all handled well. As is both the underlying and overt racism Alphonse experiences, in every day life, and when he tries to help refugees who are just looking for somewhere to call home. It deals with so many opposites, good and evil, beauty and ugliness but it never feels preachy. Thirty Days is a compelling story and I devoured the last few chapters as I just had to know where things were going for Alphonse. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Albania: Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Translated by Ani Gjika.

A collection of poetry from Luljeta Lleshanaku examining the space between objects and people, how things balance together and the different human emotions.

I’m not someone who knows a lot about poetry, but I found a lot of Lleshanaku’s poems beautiful yet bleak. There’s a loneliness to a lot of them, when someone is the subject matter of a poem they often can’t connect with others and there’s a distance between the subject and what they’re doing. Many of the poems aren’t tied to one specific place or time, instead the “story” flows from different perspectives, almost always focusing on the mundane.

Most of the poems here were about a page long, but there were a few that almost played out like short stories – Homo Antarcticus and Water and Carbon are two examples of this. They are both sad, haunting poems about people who are at a distance from others, through they choice or not. I enjoyed the poems that were more like short stories rather than the page-long ones as they naturally had more depth to them.

The poems in this collection are quiet peculiar and haunting. Whether it’s because they have been translated into English or because they’re from an Albanian poet, they don’t quiet fit with what my preconceived notions of poetry are. It makes reading these poems an interesting experience and I could see myself going back and rereading some of them to see if they have a different affect on me.

This is my pick this month’s Monthly Motif “Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community” as Negative Space is the winner of the English PEN Award and Luljeta Lleshanaku received the 2009 Crystal Vilenica award for European poets.

READ THE WORLD – Colombia: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Translated by Charlotte Coombe

Fish Soup is a bind up of two novellas and a short stories collection. Waiting for a Hurricane follows a girl who’s desperate to leave her life and her country. Sexual Education is about a student who tries to keep to the strict doctrine of abstinence taught in her school. Worse Things is a collection of snapshots about different characters who are all in different states of turmoil.

Trigger warning for child abuse in Waiting for a Hurricane. The main character forms an unlikely friendship with an old fisherman from a young age. There’s one moment where it seems like his touching her under her underwear but it’s something she never minds and isn’t really mentioned again, and as it’s from a child’s perspective it takes a while for you to figure out what’s happening. She’s so desperate to leave her home on the Colombian coast that she loses touch with friends and family but never seems to find any real connections.

All the stories in Worse Things, and in the two novellas as well, are about people who are suffering in some way. None of them appear to be happy and nearly all of them are unreliable narrators. This makes it difficult to connect to these characters, especially in Worse Things as each snapshot is a matter of pages so you can never truly understand them. Some snapshots I’d have preferred to be longer as I found the characters and their situations interesting whereas I found others very frustrating.

In both Waiting for a Hurricane and Sexual Education, punctuation around speech isn’t used which can make reading these stories a little difficult to begin with as you get used to the style of them. The way the towns and overall settings of the stories were described was incredibly vivid and I could see the beauty of the country even though so many characters didn’t like their home or saw all the problems with it. Fish Soup is an interesting collection of work from Margarita García Robayo. It’s probably a good place to start but I unfortunately found it difficult to like and connect with the majority of the characters which lessened my enjoyment.

READ THE WORLD – Kosovo: Summer is my Favorite Season by Ilir Berisha

Summer is my Favorite Season is the true story of Ilir’s childhood growing up in Pristina in Kosovo. He lives with his parents, his older brother Shpetim and his little sister Fjolla but their lives are disrupted when Serbian forces take to the streets and they begin to hear rumours of villages burning. Their lives are changed when they, ethnic Albanians living in the Kosova region of the former Yugoslavia, are treated like second-class citizens when Slobodan Milošević and his government came into power.

I knew nothing about the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and about the events leading up to it that started in the mid-1980s. The fact that Kosovo isn’t recognised by Serbia as an independent state and that there’s still tensions today (in this years World Cup two Swiss footballers of Kosovar-Albanian heritage celebrated their goals against Serbia by locking their hands together and flapping their fingers, in a gesture to resemble the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag) isn’t something that had passed me by, but the conflict and tensions were something I didn’t understand.

As Summer is my Favorite Season is a memoir, it doesn’t go into extreme details of how and why the conflict started, instead it’s told through the eyes of a child and that makes it so much sadder and affecting. Things happen slowly and Ilir doesn’t even know or understand what a tank is when one park outside his family’s apartment building. It becomes part of the view from his window. He doesn’t understand why his father is always so focussed on the news or his mother can’t go to work, and it takes time for the affects of the conflict, which for a time was in the villages away from his family, to trickle into his life.

Summer is my Favorite Season is a tough read. The things Ilir and his family went through is heart-breaking, and as he says, they’re some of the lucky ones who managed to get out of the country. They have friends, neighbours and family who are killed. They experience police harassment, and when NATO acts there’s bombs dropping so close to their home the windows shatter. The emotions Ilir goes through during his childhood are vivid, he’s scared, angry, confused, and when it’s all over he has nightmares. The affects of the conflict on him and his family is plain to see and it’s horrible to think about the thousands of people who didn’t survive.

READ THE WORLD – Brazil: Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson

Translated by Tara F. Chace.

Christiana Mara Coelho was born into extreme poverty in Brazil. She grew up living in a cave outside Diamantina with her mother, and then survived on the streets of São Paulo where they begged for food and avoided the many dangers being homeless brought. When she and her young brother are suddenly put up for adoption, everything changes for Christiana as she and her brother move across the world to a village called Vindeln in the north of Sweden, to start a new life with their adopted parents. It’s there she becomes known as Christina and must learn so many new things while missing her mother an indescribable amount.

Never Stop Walking is two stories in one and they’re told in alternating chapters. There’s Christina’s childhood, growing up in the forest and on the streets, her time in an orphanage before being adopted and moving to Sweden, and there’s her as a thirty-two-year-old, going back to Brazil for the first time in search of her biological family.

Christina is adopted when she was eight years old, and because of her time on the streets she had knowledge and memories, no young child should have. She’d seen her friends be beaten or killed, she’s gone hungry for days and learnt never to trust anyone in uniform. To say it was a tough childhood would be an understatement, but it’s clear that it is one that was full of love and laughter too. Christina adored her mother and her little brother Patrick (he was a baby when they were adopted so didn’t have the same memories or difficulties as Christina), and the three of them had fun and shared a lot of positive memories.

Seeing how Christina as a child dealt, or didn’t, with the culture shock of moving somewhere where she was the only child who wasn’t white, who had to struggle, and who had never seen snow before, was awe-inspiring in a way. Seeing how children can be so resilient, but at the same time being sad that so many children have to go through traumatic things just because where they were born. As an adult she has culture shock again, along with a whole host of other emotions, when she returns to Brazil for the first time. She’s forgotten the language, and while some memories are clear, for so long she’s never really understood how she came to be adopted when her mother was out there somewhere, wanting to be with her.

Never Stop Walking is the story of a woman finding out where she belongs and coming to an understanding that she can be both Swedish and Brazilian and that she can have a biological family and an adopted family she loves equally but in different ways. Over the course of Christina returning to Brazil and retracing her childhood, she learns many things about herself, while also affirming who she is. It’s a remarkable tale that’s told with so much raw emotion. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Philippines: Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

The body of a young boy is found dead in the landfill in a poor district outside of Manilla. His face has been cut off, and his heart and genitalia removed. The police are stretched thin and are unsure of what to do, but as another boy, and then another boy, is discovered with the same injuries, the police need help. Father Gus, a forensic anthropologist, and Father Jerome, a psychologist, are asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help the police in their efforts to track down the killer before they strike again.

Set in the late 1990’s there are quite few subplots in Smaller and Smaller Circles. There’s naturally the main plot of these murders and the police’s attempts to solve the case with the help of Father Gus and Father Jerome, but there’s story threads about the police and the Catholic Church too. The fact that the police in the Philippines don’t have good filing systems or good communications with the various departments places a major role in the story, and then with regards to the Church there’s a priest that Father Gus believes is using his power and influence to get away with abusing young boys he has access to.

Father Gus and Father Jerome are both compelling characters and are both smart in their own ways. They make each other better, bouncing ideas off one another until they might get a clearer idea of any patterns or motivations regrading the killer and their victims. Their easy camaraderie is great to read about and it’s fun to see how they manage to juggle working at a university and all the things that come with that like marking papers and getting funding, and with helping the police on serious crimes.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a well-paced mystery as you as the reader have the same amount of information as the police and Father Gus and Father Jerome, and when they do have a suspect they spend the time trying to catch them and get concrete evidence. This makes the final part of the book tense as you wonder whether they’ll get to the killer before he kills again. Also, it means the ending isn’t rushed and various characters do have some form of closure.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit gruesome. The bodies are described vividly but clinically and there’s some unsettling characters too. It’s not too scary or creepy and instead is a good mystery that’s set in a place where crime stories aren’t usually. In fact, Smaller and Smaller Circles is credited with being the first Filipino crime novel. It brings in the politics and socio-economics of the Philippines into the story in a way that fleshes out the setting and characters but isn’t something you need to have prior knowledge of to see how a lot of these characters lives are affected by forces outside of their control. 4/5.