The Read The World Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ THE WORLD – Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Trigger warning for rape and loss of a child.

Translated by Rachael McGill.

Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all that she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot during my Read the World Project and had a lot of firsts and The Desert and the Drum is another one as it’s the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It’s a pretty short and easily readable story with a character that you can’t help but empathise with.

Rayhana is a part of a nomadic tribe that’s big on tradition and honour. As her mother is the tribe leader’s sister, she feels she has a place of importance and honour and will do anything to protect it, even if that means hurting her daughter. While the Bedouin camp is completely different to what I have experience, the whole “keeping up appearances” thing is so universal it was sad to see the way Rayhana was treated by those who supposedly cared about her just to save face.

The chapters tend to alternate between the present when Rayhana is running away, meeting new people, and going into the city for the first time, and the past where she was a part of the tribe, taken advantage of by Yahya and then shunned by her mother. From these chapters in the past, you get to understand more of why Rayhana hates he mother so much but the reasons why she wants to hurt the tribe by stealing their sacred drum are more blurred. I think it’s because she sees her mother as a product of the tribe’s rules and culture so feels everyone is to blame and should suffer but I’m not sure. Are the traditions wrong when only one person is slighted but the others are content with what’s around them?

The Desert and the Drum does end quite abruptly and gives neither the reader nor Rayhana any sort of closure. It’s a bit of a sad story really, and though Rayhana does find help from some people (mostly women) she never truly feels safe as she’s so naïve by how things work in a town or city and some of the men she meets appear to have ulterior motives.

READ THE WORLD – Uganda: Child Soldier by China Keitetsi

China Keietsi’s story of her life as a child conscript in the Ugandan National Resistance Army starts at age eight and continues for ten years of terror, humiliation and sexual assault. After re-joining the army years later, she serves as bodyguard to the Minister for Records who is disgraced and eventually, she manages to make a new life for herself in Denmark.

Child Soldier is an incredibly difficult read. Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from the abuse she went through when recounting her story. The thing that kind of surprised me about Child Soldier is that half the book was about Keitetsi’s childhood and mistreatment before she was even recruited into the National Resistance Army. Her father and grandmother would beat her and treat her differently to her father’s other children just because her mother gave birth to a daughter and not a son. Some of her half and stepsiblings also weren’t treated well but the physical abuse Keitetsi went through by the people who are supposed to love you was heart breaking.

Through my Read the World Project I’ve read a few different memoirs from people who have gone through war and become refugees but the thing that made Child Soldier stick out in a way was her family life before she got caught up in war. The other memoirs I’ve read have had these young people have normal, caring families and a home life that a lot of people could relate to before tragedy struck. With Keitetsi’s story, it’s like the poor girl never had a proper childhood. She was abused before she even got tangled up in a war and was forced to fight and kill.

Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors she saw and experienced but it was interesting to see how it was written. Even though she was forced to grow up quickly, there was still only a childlike understanding of some things. She had to grow up and adapt quickly and no matter how high a rank she got in the army as she got older, there were still a lot of men who saw her a young woman that they could do with as they wish.

READ THE WORLD – Nauru: A Beautiful Prayer by Joanne Ekamdeiya Gobure

As I reach the last 30 or so countries in my Read the World Project, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a text for some of these smaller countries. Those countries might have writers, whether that’s of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, but they may not have had their work translated into English or have it readily available here in the UK.

So for Nauru, a small island country in Oceania region off the coast of Australia I did some digging and found one poem available online by a Nauruan poet. From my understanding Joanne Ekamdeiya Gobure has written a lot of poems but there’s just this one that has been shared online.

I am not a religious person (I may have been christened a Catholic but I’m really an atheist) but “A Beautiful Prayer” is the kind of idea of God I can get behind. It’s about a person asking for things from God but being told that the things they want changed or given to them aren’t the point. That they have the skills and ability to make changes to their life as long as they work for it, and likewise, things that they may seen as a flaw or an obstacle aren’t seen the same way by God.

“A Beautiful Prayer” is available to read at Bruce’s Poems.

READ THE WORLD – Seychelles: 40 years: For my 40th Birthday, I pause to share 40 poems then I shall be on my way by Ritah

A collection of 40 poems where the poet offers a round trip from childhood to the age of 40. Through the 40 poems, Ritah colours her childhood with her family, school, growing up, travelling, bright and shaded sides of the Seychelles, soul searching and her wishes.

From a pure aesthetic point of view, I thought how each poem was numbered was very quirky. Each poem starts with its title and what number it is in the collection, and the number is made out of a small lizard drawing. Whether that’s two lizards’ side by side for the number 11 or a few curled around each other into different shapes for numbers like 25. I thought that it was cute and an interesting touch.

The poems themselves are super short, only a page or two long. Most of them don’t rhyme so they read like short snapshots of a time in Ritah’s life. The poems cover everything from family to just observations about things seen on the beach. Some are pretty obvious about what they mean while others have more layers to them.

I liked how this collection is bookended by poems about dancing and the joy and freedom of it. The collection starts with “Dance, Mother, Laugh” which sees the narrator imitating her mothers laughter and movements and ends with “I Dance” which has the narrator getting lost in her own dance. It shows while Ritah has grown up, there’s joy to be had and some thing’s in life are happen in a cycle.

The poems I enjoyed the most were “Grandparents” which is basically an ode to grandparents and where they fit in a family, “Woman, I am – Part 1” and “Woman, I am – Part 2”. As the titles suggests these poems work well together and are like two sides of the same coin, the first is about what a woman is told to be and act like and how going against that can hurt her, while the second is about the woman embracing all parts of her, standing up for herself and forging her own path.

40 years: For my 40th Birthday, I pause to share 40 poems then I shall be on my way is an interesting collection of poems and the way they’re framed to give insight to the poets life makes them meaningful.

READ THE WORLD – Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

Trigger warnings for slavery and all the mistreatment that comes with that.

Set in Suriname between 1965 and 1979, The Cost of Sugar is the story of two Jewish step sisters, Elza and Sarith, descendants of Dutch settlers and the children of a plantation owner. Their pampered existences become intertwined with the fate of the plantations as the slaves decide to fight against the violent repression they have endured for too long.

The Cost of Sugar begins when Elza and Sarith are teenagers. They’d grown up with each other since they were children and were close until they started to think about marriage. They’re two very different people; Elza is kind and sometimes a bit of a doormat whereas Sarith is strong-willed and flighty. That’s kind of a nice way to describe Sarith to be honest.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read that had a narcissist protagonist, or maybe I’m more aware of what the characteristics of a narcissist are so could actually name and somewhat understand Sarith’s actions. To begin with, Sarith seems like a typical rebellious and jealous teen. She’s beautiful and gets a lot of attention and had sex when doing so before marriage is obviously a big no no but when Elza meets a man and apparently finds love and marriage, Sarith gets jealous. She can’t stand someone else being the centre of attention or getting something she doesn’t have. It isn’t even a case of something she wants, it’s like Sarith doesn’t know what she wants, or she wants something just because someone else has it.

As the years go on it’s clear that Sarith is incredibly self-centred and craves attention. She wants to socialise and go to parties, even when she does get a husband and has a child. She wants to be able to have affairs but as soon as her husband seeks attention elsewhere and maybe even falls in love she does everything in her power to destroy it.

It’s not just the sisters attitudes to love and relationships that is different but also their attitude towards slaves. They’ve both grown up with house girls and slaves and are used to others doing things for them but where Sarith is cruel and sees the servants as lesser than, Elza cares about them and loves those who have been a part of her family for so long. Sure, as they’re slaves it can be argued they don’t have much of a choice about being kind towards Elza but there is a different amount of respect between Elza and her slaves and that of Sarith and hers.

While all the family drama is going on (Elza is content to be a wife and mother while Sarith implodes her life in different ways) there’s also the uprising of runaway slaves who attack plantations, killing the white owners, setting the slaves free and looting and burning what’s left. As The Cost of Sugar is almost always from the white characters points of view, these attacks are seen as a looming threat and it’s almost like a ticking timebomb for how long their life of privilege can last. There are few “good” white characters. Elza’s husband for instance came from the Netherlands to Suriname as an adult so has a different idea of how slaves should be treated as he’s so used to what is seen as the norm there. He teaches his houseboy how to read and write and speak Dutch and gives him the opportunity to earn his freedom. Still, any white character who has slaves and does nothing to change things isn’t that good.

The Cost of Sugar is an interesting look at the that time period and the dynamic between plantation owners and slaves outside of North America. I don’t think I’d read a story that focused on white European slave owners rather than American ones before. While there are certainly a lot of similarities, there were some cultural differences too which was interesting. For instance, the bigotry towards Jewish white people from the protestant white people is brought up throughout the novel. The Cost of Sugar is a pretty engaging read and the short chapters and different characters points of view help make it a quick read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Palestine: Palestine+100 edited by Basma Ghalayini

A collection of twelve short science-fiction stories from twelve different Palestinian writers answering the question, what might their country look like in the year 2048? A century afterwards the tragedies and trauma of what has come to be called the Nakba, which saw the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.

Naturally there were some stories I liked more than others but I was always intrigued by what kind of sci-fi spin each story would have. Stories feature pretty much any sci-fi trope you could think of; virtual reality, drone swarms, aliens, AI. How they use these elements is often interesting. There are not only the sci-fi story elements but different genres of sci-fi in this collection too. There is almost a noir story with a sci-fi edge, (a journalist tries to find out the truth when an academic is murdered) as well as farce and dystopia.

While a few of the stories imagine a time where peace has been reached and Palestinians are content and thriving in this new peace, a lot of the stories aren’t happy. There’s a few out and out dystopian stories, ones where different parts of the country are walled off or there’s too much pollution so everyone has to wear gasmasks in order to survive. There’s a technical aspect to the dystopia too, whether it’s the AI going out of control or the realisation that what characters are experiencing isn’t real and they’re living inside a simulation where everything is fine and good.

While some stories seem to have more hope to them, others are more pessimistic (or maybe realistic) and show that in the future Palestinians will continue to suffer and the evolving technology will amplify that.

Some of the stories drop you right in with the characters and what they’re going through with little context of the kind of world they live in, so those can be a bit hard to follow – especially if you’re reading a few of the stories in a row. Others drop in things like a treaty of 2025 and how that’s changed their lives. I thought how some of these stories set 26 years in the future referenced both real historical events and fictional historical events was a lot of fun and made the time the story was set feel more concrete.

Palestine+100 is a great collection of sci-fi stories that often made me think. It was just interesting how these stories combined the real and imaginary to make stories that were sometimes weird but also believable. With the way the world is some of these scenarios aren’t too far out of the realm of possibility. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Togo: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Translated by James Kirkup.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book on Greenland and knew he had to go there. An African in Greenland follows his progress from Western Africa, through Europe and finally to Greenland, the journey took nearly a decade and then he spends almost two years traveling around Greenland and getting to know the people and their customs.

I feel like An African in Greenland has been on many of my TBRs over the past few years so I’m so happy and relieved that I’ve finally read it but also kind of annoyed with myself that it’s taken me this long.

It’s a very easy to read non-fiction book thanks to Kpomassie’s writing style. He documents his travels well and explains things while also sharing funny or weird anecdotes. An African in Greenland is split into four parts and the first is a brief introduction to his life and family who live in a village in Togo before he decides to make the trek to Greenland without telling his parents or having any real plan or money. It was fascinating seeing how he even got there. This was in the late 1950s that he set off and didn’t make it to Greenland till the mid-1960s. he went from country to country, staying long enough to earn money so he could make the next leg of his journey and managing to meet so many kind and helpful people along the way who’d let him stay with them for free. Trains, boats, busses, he took pretty much every form of transport bar plane.

Kpomassie was in his mid-twenties when he finally got to Greenland and while there’s obviously a big difference in what he’s used to in terms of temperature and culture, he just instantly loved the place and the people. It’s kind of fascinating how someone from a completely different part of the world can feel so at home in a totally different place. I liked how it showed the differences between southern and northern Greenland, both in terms of weather and the people’s attitudes. It makes sense as no matter how big or small a country is, the people who live in different places there have as many differences as similarities. It was interesting to see how while Kpomassie was friendly with people in the southern towns, he was also a bit disappointed as they didn’t live as he saw in his book. They were almost the metropolitan area where traditions like hunting were long gone, he had to go further north to find those who still hunted, had sleds and huskies and lived how he saw in his book.

An African in Greenland is a really interesting read and I learnt a lot about Greenland and its people. It’d be interesting to know how much life has changed for the people living in those remote regions with the internet and technology because in the 1960s it seemed a very isolated life even if there was a community of people around you. Then there’s Kpomassie as a person. While the things he learnt and shared are interesting, he as a person is just so impressive. He had a limited amount of schooling but clearly had a knack for languages as he did courses via mail and just the fact that he decided he wanted to go somewhere based on pictures in a book and no matter how many setbacks or detours he had, he kept going and achieved his dream. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea-Bissau: The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá

Translated by Jethro Soutar.

Ndani leaves her village to seek a better life in the capital, finding work as a maid for a Portuguese family. The mistress of the house, Dona Deolinda, embarks on a mission to save Ndani’s soul through religious teaching, but the master of the house has less righteous intentions. From there Ndani struggles to find love and a home as for so long she’s been told she has evil inside her.

The Ultimate Tragedy has one of those blurbs that pretty much summarises all the major plot points of the book so it was easy to see where things were going if you’d read that like I had. For that reason, the summary I’ve written here is my own version.

The Ultimate Tragedy is a story of colonial Africa from the point of view of the colonialised. This means it’s not often a happy story, especially as some Black characters start to try and reclaim their home and agency but soon find that the systems in society are working against them.

Ndani’s story, like most of the characters stories in The Ultimate Tragedy to be honest, is a sad one. There’re almost no bright moments of happiness in her life and when she does find some, it doesn’t last for long. For that reason, The Ultimate Tragedy is bit slow to read as it’s so relentlessly melancholy.

That being said, there are a few moments or wry humour sprinkled throughout. Often it comes from miscommunication or from having the benefit of hindsight as some of the things Dona Deolinda and other white characters say or do is obviously racist but it’s written in a way that there’s almost a knowing wink to it. Like, “gee aren’t these people dumb and offensive.” I know that probably sounds weird but it’s the best I can describe it. Like these characters are epitome of the White Saviour trope but they are so oblivious to the fact due to the time The Ultimate Tragedy is set, and to read that sort of story now it’s funny because of its ridiculousness.

However, that ridiculousness obviously has a darker and more dangerous side and when Ndani and her loved ones get caught up in it, the injustices they face are so sad and, like the title of the book, tragic.

READ THE WORLD – Maldives: Dreams of My Heart by Aminath Neena

A poetry collection with themes of love, relationships, and spirituality.

Just to start/forewarn anyone who wants to get a copy of Dreams of My Heart, I got the ebook and for whatever reason I couldn’t read it on my kindle. So many pages of it were blank so there was only the odd poem every dozen pages or so, but when I tried it on the kindle app on my phone, it read fine and all pages were visible with text on them. So that was weird.

Anyway, onto the poems themselves. There was a lot of poems in this collection and the vast majority were only a page long. There were different poetry styles used throughout, some rhymed, some didn’t and those that did rhyme did so in different conventions. The formatting of the poems on the page was also varied.

I have to say this wasn’t particularly a collection where any poems stood out to me. Perhaps that’s because they were so short and there was so many of them that reading the collection in one sitting meant that a lot of them blurred into each other. Especially as the themes were quite similar throughout and it wasn’t a collection that was broken into sections or anything.

One poem is worth a mention though and that’s “Blank Verse”. It’s like the poem is the narrative voice and it’s talking about all the various conventions that make a poem a poem and how poems can be effective. It was interesting and not something I’d really seen before in poetry – though I’m by no means a poetry connoisseur.