The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sudan: Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a very short (just 72 pages long) but impactful short story collection. There are ten stories in the collection, the shortest one is just two pages long while the longest is nine pages with the others being somewhere in between.

I think this is the shortest short story collection I’ve ever read, and I was impressed by how much the author could say in so few words. “A Week of Love” is the two-page story that follows the evolution of a relationship and it easily shows the various emotions and uncertainty when you like someone new.

A lot of the stories are about something that seems so everyone can relate to as it’s so mundane, like a person’s thoughts as they travel on a bus, or someone desperate to find a job to support their family. Many of the stories are a little snapshot into peoples lives in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, and the mental and physical struggles they have.

My favourite story in the collection was “Thirteen Months of Sunrise”, it has discussions of identity and the differences and similarities between people and cultures from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It’s hard to really talk about Thirteen Months of Sunrise because the stories were so short! Still, it’s a great translation and the stories are interesting and thoughtful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Narrated by Prentice Onayem.

New York, 2007. After two long years apart, Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni and their six-year-old son from Cameroon to join him in the land of opportunity. Drawn by the promise of America they are seeking the chance of a better life for them and their son. When Jende lands a dream job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, Neni finds herself taken into the confidence of his glamorous wife Cindy. The Edwards are powerful and privileged: dazzling examples of what America can offer to those who are prepared to strive for it. But when the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all four lives are dramatically upended.

I really enjoyed how Behold the Dreamers took place in the recent past and how it showed the many big changes in a short space of time. There’s mentions of the race for Democratic nominees for President between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, and how when Obama got the nomination and then the presidency how Jende saw it as a sign that he and his family could achieve anything in America. Knowing about the financial crash and how that’s going to have a huge knock-on effect on the Jonga’s and Edwards’ makes there an air of tension in the story, it’s like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop while the majority of the characters have no idea what’s about to hit them.

There’s a lot of themes in Behold the Dreamers, a lot of them surrounding the highs and lows of being an immigrant. There’s the loneliness, monotony and uncertainty surrounding trying get the correct papers to stay in the country or to work or to get an education. There are so many hoops for Jende and Neni to jump through, but they also find their own community with fellow immigrants who have lived and worked in New York for far longer than they have.

Behold the Dreamers does a good job at showing how the American Dream is portrayed to immigrants and how over time it often becomes clear that it is an impossible dream. However, for Neni she can only see the good about life in America, especially when comparing it to life in Cameroon. Neni in sees America through rose-tinted glasses. She’d watched episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Cameroon and thought that could be her life, and even when she watches other media like Boyz n the Hood she feels that’s the outlier, really life in America can be great for Black people like her. Her naivety and optimism are almost painful, especially when thinking about what is currently (and has been for years) going on in America and the rest of the world right now.

The Jonga’s are well-rounded characters and you can understand both Neni and Jende’s feelings when they’re trying to earn money for their families. Both of their relationships with the Edwards’ is interesting. While he never stops seeing Clark as his boss, Jende wants to look after him and protects his secrets, unconsciously getting entwined in his life far more than the average employee should. Neni on the other hand, never sees her work for Cindy (as a housekeeper/nanny for their young son) as more than it is. While she appreciates when Cindy might give her old clothes that were going to a charity shop anyway, she never stops seeing the social and economic divide between them and doesn’t see why she should help Cindy when she won’t help herself.

A lot of the time the problems the Edwards’ face often feel like #FirstWorldProblems – especially when compared to the Jonga’s. However, Behold the Dreamers makes it clear how while their lives are so different, money really can’t solve all of the Edwards’ problems. Cindy is lonely, she thinks her husband is cheating because he’s never home and always working, she drinks and often seems unhappy. Her issues are big for her and while she does sometimes try to offer Neni money or guidance, she can’t comprehend the uncertainty the Jonga’s are going through as they wait for the next immigration court date.

Behold the Dreamers covers so many themes and ideas while still making a compelling story. You want the Jonga’s to achieve their dreams, but the many barriers in their way slowly become clear and should they really spend their lives struggling for the idea of the American Dream? 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bhutan: Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a collection of twenty-two stories set in four different regions of Bhutan. The presence of the yeti is ubiquitous to the kingdoms of the Himalayas, where beliefs and attitudes related to it go beyond scientific judgment and analysis.

This short story collection is really quite interesting. Choden has listened and talked to village elders throughout Bhutan to write down the stories or folktales that had previously just been verbally passed down the generations. The way the stories are written are simple but effective and they do feel like you’re just listening to a tale that often has some sort of lesson for the listener to learn. A lot of the stories seemed like fables with the people who encountered the yetis (or the migoe as the Bhutanese call them) learning something, or making horrendous mistakes that then the listener will learn from.

The migoi are often described as “a giant hairy man with the features of a monkey”. All of the descriptions are very vivid, especially for the female yetis with their “huge sagging breasts… swinging and rolling on its chest” and there’s also illustrations in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti which was an unexpected but nice surprise and it really adds to the stories. Everyone has an idea of what a yeti looks like thanks to popular culture, but to see how the Bhutanese sees them, which is generally similar to the Western version but has some different things like how they possess the “dipshing” which enables it to turn invisible at will.

Some of the stories in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti are quite gruesome as the people who encounter the yeti either anger it and therefore it harms them, or from their own fear or desire to be perceived as strong, they do their best to capture or kill the yeti.

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a short but interesting read. It’s fun to hear different stories about yetis and how while they generally have similar attributes throughout the different regions of Bhutan, there are some differences in terms of the spirituality or legends surrounding the yetis. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guadeloupe: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Translated by Judith G. Miller.

Guadeloupe, a French overseas department, May 1967. Nine-year-old Émilienne Absalon is struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher, Madame Ladal, and her father at the onset of a workers’ strike. As violence throws the city into chaos, characters both living and dead take the stage to help Émilienne find those she’s lost, and in the process rewrite Caribbean history.

This may sound weird, but I found The Restless so easy to read and was thirty pages into it before I realised, and that made me instantly like this book. Perhaps it’s because I was in the middle of a fantasy/sci-fi short story anthology when I decided I needed something different. While the short story anthology was good, I struggled going from one story to another when I wanted to spend more time with the different characters or learn more about the different worlds, so it was nice to feel settled in one place with a clearly defined protagonist again.

I really liked how the story unfolded in The Restless. The chapters alternate between Émilienne’s point of view and other character’s point of view. These other characters are family members, neighbours or other people connected to the Absalon family somehow – and some are dead, and some are ghosts. Each character had a distinct voice which certainly helped with the chapters not from Émilienne’s point of view as sometimes they’d start and you wouldn’t be sure who was now recounting their tale, just that it was a different person to before.

Émilienne is a great character. The author does a great job of showing how a child would experience and try to understand suddenly losing an important figure in her life like a teacher. How some things are difficult to explain to a child because they’re to do with governments and fears of communism and having ideas that are deemed inappropriate, but how the child can still pick up on how something isn’t right or is unfair. Add to the fact her father, who she believes can explain to her what happened to her teacher, hasn’t been home for days leads her to be very unsettled. Also, Émilienne and her fellow classmates’ anger and frustrations of the sudden dismissal of their teacher mirrors those of the workers who want their wages to increase.

In The Restless’s prologue, it gives a short overview of the talks between management and construction workers union that led to work stoppages in Pointe-à-Pitre and, after the breakdown of negotiation, violence as the police were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. This is important as it’s the backdrop to Émilienne’s stress of her missing teacher and father, and it provides context for the anti-union sentiment that you slowly learn her teacher was a victim of and provides reasons for her fathers absence.

The Restless is a relatively short but effective book. It juggles its characters well and provides both a child’s perspective to sudden violence that they cant comprehend a reason for, and various adults perspectives, some only just learning about their workers rights, some who have died and were struggling in different ways, and some who are just trying to get by. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Democratic Republic of Congo: Beneath the Blue Sky: A Short Book of Poetry by Frederick Yamusangie

A short poetry collection of less than 80 pages.

I won’t say I’m an expert in poetry, because I’m most definitely not, but I have read some poetry collections over the past few months so I’m starting to get an idea of what I like and what does and doesn’t work for me.

Unfortunately, Beneath the Blue Sky doesn’t work for me. There’s no theme or anything running through this poetry collection, making each poem insular and has very little effect. It’s also then hard to derive any meaning from them because they are so varied in what they are about, or what point of view a poem is from. The poems themselves are often very short, and as there’s nothing connecting them, it’s just like you read five lines and then that’s it.

In the latter half of the collection there were two poems that stood out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were the poems which were longer and had more substance to them. The first is called A Jungle which was about how a town is called a jungle and how and why that is when a physically jungle is so different. The second is called Oh! My Congo! which is about the Congo, how it’s changing and the people there. These two poems were ones that felt like they meant something and were from a point of view that was more unique.

All in all, I didn’t enjoy Beneath the Blue Sky. It’s a short yet meandering poetry collection that really didn’t work for me and I’m struggling to find anything else to say about it. 1/5.

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

Narrated by Tavia Gilbert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.