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1 Apr

12 months ago, I was in London maniacally preparing for a work trip to India and Nepal. This was how I spent my April: spending time with an organisation working with deaf-blind children in rural Gujurat;, visiting the biggest red light districts in Mumbai; celebrating Nepali New Year (2067!) in the pure mountain air of Pokhara where street children as young as 6 stick their heads in plastic bags to sniff glue.
Over the course of three weeks, I was inspired, challenged, and humbled. And I still haven’t found adequate words to describe the Mumbai brothels I entered in particular, or the energetic children (they are just children) whose mothers work in them.

This was the first of intense work trips for me in 2010. I returned to India and Nepal to visit NGOs, as well as Bangladesh and Cambodia in August. In terms of personal travel, I had the most beautiful romantic time in the south of France and Italy. And in June, my love and I broke up, in Australia of all places. I escaped to Switzerland in November to visit some close friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. 10 countries in 2010.

I ended the year in a state of exhaustion- a tiredness that was partly physical, but mainly wearing in emotional and mental ways. All this to say, I took a huge decision, to leave my job after 3 years in an organisation which had been so good to me, and move in with my parents for a few months for the first since I left home in 2003. This was a simple choice in many ways, that of spending quality time with my parents, both of whom I enjoy being around, in the sunshine of the Middle-East where I grew up. But I was still terrified. I have been very goal-oriented over the last few years, and as I was ringing in the New Year in January, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Now what?’
So I have worked hard to remove the ‘what’ from that question, and just bring the ‘now’ to the centre, closer and closer. I have been able to take a step back and appreciate things for what they are. To focus on personal relationships, to reconnect with my parents as an adult, to make time for friends. I feel rested and stronger. My brain has reassessed certain experiences and made healthy space for some new ones. Some things I will process for a long time, some images I will keep with me, and that is okay too.

This has turned out to be a transitional time, one that I connect a bit with ‘coming of age’, which I know is traditionally associated with a young person’s transition to adulthood but which I now feel people go through at different points throughout life. Perhaps that is why it is a theme that is come up in all of the books I have read since the start of the year (more detailed post about the first few just below).
In all of these books, as different as they are, I have connected with the ideas of growing, questioning, longing, adapting, changing. All characters seem to be questioning their life, finding themselves in situations they might not have prepared for, eventually changing in ways they might not have predicted. I suspect this might be me projecting a little, an Anais Nin case of ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’. How do you see things right now and are you happy with what you are seeing?


books I’ve read in 2011 (in great detail), part I

1 Apr

The Namesake– Jhumpa Lahiri. The first of Jhumpa Lahiri I’ve read after ‘The interpreter of maladies’ and just as wonderful. Lots of emotional and cultural themes around identity, home, the struggle of being caught between two worlds. It also had a lot around naming, the names given to us, the names we choose for ourselves, and how we are perceived by others as a result.  “They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

Unless – Carol Shields. My first novel by Carol Shields and I found it powerful. The narrator is a 44 year old woman, living a perfectly peaceful suburban life, who has had no need to ever feel any anger. Until she discovers that her eldest daughter has been sitting cross-legged on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl in her lap and a placard saying GOODNESS around her neck. The sense of disengagement that the narrator feels from her husband and friends, the lack of support and understanding which leads to isolation- it’s all described beautifully. Ultimately, the anger that the narrator feels makes her understand the world, and her daughter, better. “It doesn’t mean that all will be well for ever and ever, amen; it means that for five minutes a balance has been achieved at the margin of the novel’s thin textual plane; make that five seconds; make that the millionth part of a nanosecond.”

Noah’s compass– Anne Tyler. My mother introduced me to Anne Tyler a few years back, and I really connect with her writing style. I find she describes life situations really well, just the every day detail that is quite hard to put your finger on usually. I find it hard to describe the ‘bigger picture’ contents of this book but it’s about a 60 year old man, going through a bit of a life change (following a job loss and an accident which has caused memory loss!). All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, and gracefully skirted adventure. “I just don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao– Junot Diaz. I didn’t really enjoy the writing style so I struggled a bit through this one. It centres around Oscar, a Dominican growing up in New Jersey, and a curse ‘fuku’ that has affected his family for generations. I learned a lot about Dominican history though and actually grew quite fond of Oscar by the end of it. “Nothing more exhilarating … than saving yourself by the simple act of waking.”

My Father’s Wives – José Eduardo Agualusa. Probably my favourite of all the novels I’ve read recently…. gorgeous descriptions of Luanda, Maputo, Cape Town. Music, family connections, belonging, racial/social identity, the search for a past and the truth…this book is dripping in saudade,  “And what use will it be to you knowing the truth?’ ‘It’s not a question of being useful. What use is the beauty of stars to me? They make my soul glad. I think truth has something to do with beauty.”

Icy Sparks– Gwyn Hyman Rubio. Set in Kentucky in 1956, a young girl with Tourette’s struggles to be accepted by her peers, teachers, and even tries to hide her condition from her grandparents who are raising her. The thing with Tourette’s of course is that you can’t hide it. Heartbreaking descriptions of exclusion. “I was born a frog child from Icy Creek. From my father, I inherited the fear that resided in his coal-black eyes, and from this fear I’ve gained wisdom. […] From my mama, I grew to see the world through hope-filled eyes. Though hope did not come easy.”

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin. I can’t really describe this book without given anything away, so if you’re curious- read it! Not the most well-written book in the world, but it’s light-hearted and gave some insight into a household of 4 wives (and all their children) dominated by a traditional patriarch in Nigeria.

Lucky– Alice Sebold. I haven’t read The Lovely Bones, so this is my first experience of Alice Sebold. This book is a memoir which describes her experience of being raped when she was in college, how that incident and the healing continued to shape her life. Very haunting, and it triggered a lot of my fears about rape/sexual aggression that I didn’t know I had. I also thought it was quite daring in some aspects- for example discussing how the rapist was a young Black male in America, the stereotypes around this and how hard it is to confirm them in a situation such as this. “I forgive you,” I said. I said what I had to. I would die by pieces to save myself from real death.”


11 Feb

I am reading the most wonderful book by an Angolan author, José Eduardo Agualusa. It’s called ‘My Father’s Wives’ and is about the journey a woman named Laurentina takes to Luanda in pursuit of her father, Faustino Manso. As Laurentina arrives in Angola, her father’s funeral is taking place, so she decides to change direction and go in search of her late father’s women and his other children. It reads a bit like a journal.

An excerpt, (The Silence of chess players):


No, silences.

I could write a short essay on silence. Or rather, a catalogue of silences illustrating them for deaf people*:
The silence that precedes ambushes;
The silence at the moment of taking a penalty;
The silence of a funeral march;
The silence of sunflowers;
The silence of God after massacres;
The silence of a whale suffering on a beach;
The silence of Sunday mornings in a little village in the interior of the Alentejo;
The silence of the ice-pick that killed Trotsky;
The silence of the bride before the I do;

There are placid silences and others that are convulsed. Happy silences, and others that are dramatic. There are those that smell of incense, and those that stink of manure. There are those that savour intensely of ripe guavas; those that are kept in the inside coat pocket together with the photographer of a dead son; those which go naked through the streets; arrogant silences, and the ones that beg.

The silence of chess players is different from any other.

*Assuming that someone who lives in complete silence doesn’t know what silence consists of. Does a blind man know what darkness is?’

I am left contemplating the power of silence; how central it is in a world that is ever increasing in noise. I am thinking of the silence in Cairo’s Tahrir square, between the moment Mubarak’s departure was announced and the cries of jubilation that came soon after. Egypt on my mind today.

What is your favourite silence?

Banana Yoshimoto and healing

20 Oct

I just finished my third book by her, this one a collection of short stories titled ‘Lizard’. Her words are so beautiful to me.

Of this particular collection she says:

I wrote these stories over a period of about two years. In them, I was interested in exploring time, healing, karma and fate. I’d been thinking about the very different ways people can see their time on this earth, either as a sort of paradise, or as a living hell. To my mind, however, it’s not that people live lives that are inherently good or bad. I believe that we create our own heaven or hell in the very process of becoming and being our “selves”. My intention in these stories was to investigate that ongoing process, with the result that many of the pieces deal with religion and spiritual topics.

I believe that we are not born with hope, but rather that it come to us as a transforming force. The people in my stories are encountering hope for the first time. The process of discovery usually starts when they notice something about themselves or their surroundings that they were never aware of before, or experience anew a forgotten sensation. That type of awakening compels them to act and to change things. I wanted to write about the feelings of disorientation, apprehension, and uncertainty that accompany most attempts at sorting out one’s own emotional baggage, as well as the feelings of liberation that some people have at crucial times in their lives.’

This is where I am at the moment. This year has been so transforming for me, and I have changed in ways that I didn’t even realise I had to. It’s been hard work though, and I am looking forward to coming out of it on the other side… I am still not quite there.

Haruki Murakami

15 Mar
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”