Reading this book reminded me why I love reading, it reminded me that literature has the power to connect with you deeply. Panty (which I have reviewed earlier here) is the first book I read by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay and completely loved. So when I heard that Tilted Axis were publishing another one of her works in English I couldn’t wait! I’m always a bit worried when there is a book I really want coming out, you never know if a book is a one hit wonder (this is also the reason why Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman is still on my bookshelf unread). I shouldn’t have worried though, once again Bandyopadhyay knocked me off my feet with this complex take about a woman struggling with her many Selfs.
“a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family”
I’m always a little bit sceptical of internationally published books that claim to provide ‘immigrant narratives’. I worried that this would be yet another novel that perpetuating self-orientalist notions of the ‘immigrant journey’. This is one of the main reasons I started this blog, to find and read stories that recognise the complexity of a transnational identity.
But I was pleasantly surprised by Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry, I am usually a very slow reader (reflected in the slow release of posts on this blog!) but I devoured this book in two days flat! Chemistry is a story of a woman finding her self in the midst of an imploding academic career and romantic relationship. Our protagonist is a chemist trying to but failing to complete her Chemistry PhD and trying but failing to take the next step in a long term relationship. The backdrop to her internal struggle is her strict upbringing as a child of first generation Chinese immigrants. The story is told in first person by an unnamed narrator and written in distinctive short chapters that keep you hooked.
Whilst the storyline is a familiar one, I loved Wang’s take on it. She brings up the question of belonging and otherness in a unique and witty way. I was glad that this book didn’t fixate on the stereotypical ‘going back to my roots to find myself’ narrative. Instead, Wang’s protagonist in her own clever, funny but also fallible way highlights the complexity of living in two worlds and still not being defined by it. She is more than the sum of her parts.
What I loved most about this book though, is the way it weaves humour and emotional depth. This book literally had me laughing out loud on the metropolitan line to work in the morning. Which trust me you need, when you’re face in is in another man’s armpit and you’re trying to act normal…
Some Quotes I liked:
Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.
Being in limbo doesn’t preclude us from sharing nice meals. In limbo, we still have to eat.
The optimist sees the glass half full. The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous
With wry humour and a deft touch, Butterfly Fish, the outstanding first novel by a stunning new writer, is a work of elegant and captivating storytelling. A dual narrative set in contemporary London and 18th century Benin in Africa, the book traverses the realms of magic realism with luminous style and graceful, effortless prose.
A couple of months back I read Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular and it blew me away. I was obsessed with all her characters and have wanted to read her debut novel Butterfly Fish ever since then.
I have wanted to write this ‘review’ for a while but have felt stuck because I just didn’t know where to start. It made me feel a lot of things and I had to put it down at points to take a breather (I should probably mention at this point that the book contains triggers for suicide, rape, incest and living with mental illness., basically a lot to process). After much introspection, I thought the easiest way to do it was to just tell people why I loved it so damn much! And obviously why I think you should read it:
- The writing!
Irenosen’s writing style is one of the most diverse I have read. While Irenosen’s lens in Speak Gigantular was razor sharp, Butterfly Fish has a richer prose. The author really takes her time to build her characters and gets you to invest in them. I really enjoyed Butterfly Fish and found it to be an immersive reading experience, I haven’t been fully consumed by a book and its characters in the way I did with Butterfly Fish in a while. So if you are looking for an immersive read to help you survive your commute to work this is the book for you.
Manjula Padmanabhan’s Three Virgins and Other Stories (TVAOS), a collection of ten short stories, each one weirder – in a good way – and bolder than the other.Reading this immensely diverse collection, I was struck by the author’s capacity to bring to life such a disparate range of images and narratives. From expat vampires in Delhi to a cyber-punk feminist retelling of the Ramayana, one thing that binds these distinct stories is Padmanabhan’s subversive slant. Each of the stories push the boundaries of ‘normal’ and question the rules of storytelling that we are so used to.
Gabby Rivera Juliet Takes a Breathe really blew me away. This book blew me away. In fact it hit me so hard that I had to take a reading break for two weeks and to fully process how beautiful this piece of writing is. Obviously, it has a bit of work to do, the ending felt a bit rushed to me but apart from that
This was a really personal, revealing and life affirming read for me. So much so in fact that I have been putting off writing about this for about three weeks because I wanted to get it right. I decided that the best way to tell about all the amazing things about this book was by breaking it down into ‘things I liked’ section.
So here goes, things I liked about this:
- Its good to shut-up the anti-diversity brigade
While the book is centred on Juliet, a lesbian who is also Latina, it does not fixate on this. I am neither gay nor Latina but I found myself fully relating to and enjoying Juliet’s journey. The preface especially broke my heart (in a really good way). For me, this book was also about a young woman figuring out her life and her politics. A book that everyone should read and appreciate.
So if you come across people who don’t see the value in diverse literature or feel that it ‘restricts their choice’, you need to give them a copy of this book.
- Feminism and Intersectionality
YES! This book perfectly explains why intersectionality is the key to life!!
It articulated very clearly something I have felt a long time about mainstream feminism but couldn’t put my finger on. The feeling you get when you are trying to reconcile the theory of feminism to your real life as a brown women in the western hemisphere. The feeling that you constantly contradicting yourself.
I have always had trouble figuring out whether I’m ‘doing it right’. If I am actually practicing and living a feminist life and not just ranting about it on this blog and elsewhere. Reading Juliet Takes a Breathe was like talking to friend who was going to through the same thing. It was reassuring. It is a really useful reminder that there is no such this as universal feminism. That the intersectionality of class, race, ethnicity, gender are not just side notes but important ways in which each of us experiences things
People that have read my blog before will notice that I am obsessed with the idea of Otherness. Of how as communities and individuals we draw illusionary circles around ourselves and call that Us and everyone outside it Them.
I was completely awestruck the first time I read Stuart Hall’s essay Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His statement that ‘Otherness is an internal compulsion’ is the most revealing but also conflicting thing I have ever come across. It showed me that systems of oppression – White hetero-patriarchy in the case of this book- are perpetuated at the level of thought and culture by recruiting the very people it oppresses to the do the dirty work for them. This was also extremely depressing. It made me realise that to break a system of oppression you are not only constantly struggling against that system but also yourself. When you think about it this way things become very bleak.
But I loved the way that Juliet’s narrative challenged this notion of Otherness. She is an active participant in her life and not a victim. This book is not a story about the struggles of a gay WOC but a story about a strong woman taking the reigns in her hand. Turning that internal feeling of otherness into something she can understand and using it to fuel her.
GO READ THIS BLOODY BOOK.
The Bone Readers is the first book in Jacob Ross’ crime thriller trilogy, Ross’ first novel Pynter Binder was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Regional Prize (2009) and chosen as one of the British Authors Club’s top three Best First Novels.
I have recently been reading a lot of short stories and was glad for the chance to read this really engrossing read. The Bone Readers is set in the Caribbean and follows the protagonist Michael Digson AKA Digger as he reluctantly starts his fledgling career at St Andrews CID. Digger’s work takes him to the underbelly of the island and reveals the dark secrets even the most saintly people can hold.
I was fascinated by Ross’ ability to create characters with depth and diversity. I was rooting for our protagonist and his rise from a school dropout to forensic expert. The entry of Miss Stanisklaus, a strong no-nonsense woman who can outperform the overly male dominated CID kick starts the action. Despite starting of a bit slow I was soon gripped by the central narrative and the chase to uncover a particularly tough missing person’s case on the island. While searching for Nathan, who has been missing for 3 years, Digger and Stanisklaus highlight how justice often has to overcome the obstacles of power and politics. Miss Stanisklaus’s talent for seeing in-between the lines allows her to make the biggest break in the case and sets in motion a chain of action that puts all their lives in danger.
While the book deals indirectly with some pretty heavy issues such (murder, sexual and emotional abuse) it does so in a respectful way. I like the way that the survivors are constructed as strong characters whose value in the narrative goes beyond labelling them as victims. Instead we are invited to think about the issues of repressed masculinity and religious fervour for ourselves.
All in all, this was a great read I can’t wait to see what the sequel has in store. Thank-you Peepal Tree Press for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Little Boy Blue was sent to me for free in exchange of an honest review. Thank you Jamal for the opportunity to read your work and also for reminding of the rebellion that is the Diaspora.
The word diaspora has its roots in the Greek words dia, meaning between, through or across and the speiro meaning to scatter or spread. In that sense a diaspora refers to a widely scattered population whose ‘origins’ lie in a smaller geographical location.
I have recently found that poetry is one of the best expressions of diasporic ‘identity’ that I have come across. I have begun to connect with diasporic poets, women and men who have no clue I exist but I still feel like somehow they are my soul-sisters and we could complete each other’s sentences if we ever met. And the Little Boy Blue is no exception, although in his interview the author, Jamal Mehmood, says he never intended his poetry to be ‘diasporic poetry’, it is the thing I picked up on! I really connected with his way of expressing the dual identities or side gaze that I feel so much as someone whose home is split across two nations and multiple ethnicities.
I am obsessed with the ‘diasporic imagination’. I am obsessed with the talent that comes out of these international communities and truly believe that they are unique in their literature, art and music. For me, diasporic works of art are personal and as everything that is personal is political (#feminism -always the intersectional kind) so too is this collection of poetry. Little Boy Blue stands out in that it expresses identity differently to the mainstream drivel that lacks the language and insight to explain immigrant communities beyond the integration vs isolation paradigm (Cue David Cameron’s archaic English language classes). It is an individual act of rebellion that demands us to see identities as a third space, as something that is new altogether and will not be defined by the old/new or backward/forward binary of nationhood and ethnicity. Two pieces in particular brought this home to me:
I was also pleasantly surprised at the way in which the poetry was both tender, powerful and political at the same time. This fierce tenderness is something I associate it with women poets (Rupi Kaur, Pavana, Nayyirah Waheed) and am used to men writing about other women (or daffodils a la William Wordsworth), but Jamal has taught me to not judge a book by its cover. Here is a snippet of ‘A Letter to Future Sons’ which I thought was so powerful:
‘A Letter to Future Sons’
weep, young man, weep
like your life depended on it
you are no messenger of God
so weep until until the walls come falling down
boy, you have a soul beneath your skin
so weep and water the ground
where your fathers are buried
for not producing enough tears
but still producing you
I highly recommend this debut collection, you can buy it here and check out the full collection for yourself!
 This definition is lazily drawn from Wikipedia, although I think that this obsession with geography can be challenged it was the most succinct one! So don’t be angry… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora
 The side gaze is an interesting concept that explains the ability to have and view things from dual or multiple identities (Sujata Moorti, Desperately seeking an identity: Diasporic cinema and the articulation of transnational kinship,2003)
Homi Bhabha refers to the ‘third space’ that is not backward or forward, old or new but “ innovative site of collaboration and contestation.”(Location of Culture 1994)