Belletrista Blog

The shortlist for this year’s Caine Prize has just been announced and three women are in the running for the prestigious award. This is always an exciting time of year – the Prize is a great way to discover short stories by excellent writers. Lucky for us, the Prize’s website links to a copy of each story so you can play the judge and decide who you think should win.

Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo has been nominated for her story ‘Hitting Budapest’. You can read a brief interview with Bulawayo here.

Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda has been shortlisted for ‘Butterfly Dreams’,

Lauri Kubuitsile’s ‘In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata’ is the third female-authored story on the shortlist. You can read Lauri’s blog, Thoughts From Botswana, here.

The winner will be announced on 11 July 2011.

Posted by Char

Another new issue of Belletrista has been published – Yay!!

I was absolutely fascinated by the interview with Professor Michael Nayden about writing by Ukrainian women. It’s sounds like there’s a wealth of wonderful books just crying out to be translated. I’ve printed out the featured story, Canus Lupus Familiaris by Tanya Malyarchuk to read on my journey to work tomorrow.

The conversation about Annabel by Kathleen Winter is really interesting, particularly the discussion on how readers react differently to inaccuracies in a story (in this case about a medical condition).

I think I’ll be reading the reviews and adding to my wishlist all week!

Posted by Char

Edwidge Danticat is probably one of the best known women authors of Caribbean descent. Last year I read her debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, published in 1994 (it was chosen for the Oprah Book Club four years later). The book tackles race and gender issues in a way that reminds me of Toni Morrison, one of my favourite writers. Danticat’s writing is uncomplicated but evocative and she doesn’t flinch from showing how women are subjected to distress and pain.

So I was excited by the prospective of reading Brother, I’m Dying, Danticat’s family memoir that tells the story of her preacher uncle, Joseph. I wasn’t disappointed. I was immediately drawn in and ended up caring very much about the people she depicts.

Early in Danticat’s life her father and mother left Haiti for a new life in New York. She and her brother were left in the care of her Joseph and his wife. While this was a bewildering situation for a young child, it’s obvious that she came to love her uncle nearly as much as she loved her father; her affection and respect for him is palpable.

Through the book Danticat skillfully interweaves incidents in Haiti’s turbulent political life with family stories. She doesn’t go overboard on this – she lets the reader come to their own understanding of what life must have been like in such unsettling circumstances.  She does the same when she recounts the end of Joseph’s life. He died alone, at the mercy of an all too often inhumane and bureaucratic system. But Danticat doesn’t tell us that explicitly. She just quotes from the official records that relate to his death, a cold list of facts that underline the sadness of an old man dying without his family around him. It’s an incredibly powerful way of conveying both her grief and her anger at what happened to Joseph, which moved me to tears.

Last week I read an excellent book called Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai. Set in 21st century India, it’s part murder mystery, part social critique. Instead of a police detective, the sleuth in this story is an unconventional social worker who gets herself involved in a wealthy family’s attempt to promote an all-male progeny. I had the good fortune to have the opportunity to read this novel for the next edition of Belletrista.

Last autumn I read a detailed account of this “female feticide,” as it’s called in India, in the riveting Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, by Michelle Goldberg. According to her research, there are half a million sex-selective abortions performed in India every year, even though fetal sex determination is illegal. As India becomes more prosperous, this problem is worsening. With growing consumerism, dowry demands have grown exponentially. The attitude with many is that spending 500 Rupees on an ultrasound now can save parents 500,000 Rupees later.

So when I read Desai’s novel, I had some awareness of the situation. But the timeliness of her novel really struck me when I opened my Globe and Mail on Saturday morning and saw the article “Rate of aborted female fetuses increases in India.” According to the latest statistics, in the age 0-6 range, there are currently 914 girls for every 1,000 boys; the rate of female fetuses being aborted is higher than every before. Further, the baby girls who are born die in infancy more often than boy babies due to discrimination of resources (including food and health care)—this is an issue that Desai effectively illustrates in Witness the Night.

Despite both dowries and sex determination being illegal, according to the Globe and Mail, the government has little political will, and does not take this issue seriously. In light of the recently released statistics that show this problem worsening, Desai’s novel is an important book that deserves a wide audience. It’s imperative that this issue is reported in the media, and in non-fiction books such as The Means of Reproduction, but by putting this issue in a novel format, the author has expanded the audience of readers who must learn about this issue and speak out against it.

Before I started this focus on reading Caribbean authors, I’d never heard of Guadeloupe writer Maryse Condé. I’m so glad I’ve found her!

The Story of the Cannibal Woman, is a moving exploration of race, relationships, secrets and grief. Rosélie’s long-term partner, Stephen, is brutally murdered near their Cape Town home. Over the next few months Rosélie re-examines her life and her relationship with Stephen. I found her to be a sad and lonely woman searching for her place in the world. Through her grief she develops an affinity with Fiela, a woman she doesn’t know who is standing trial for the murder of her husband, feeling that there is some kind of link between their situations.

Perhaps Rosélie feels she should have had the courage to act as Fiela did.  As the novel progresses Rosélie starts to discover hidden aspects of Stephen’s character and questions why did she love him. Stephen doesn’t come out well from this story. A white English academic, he seems to enjoy the shock value of having a black partner. He’s arrogant and and Rosélie allows him to dominate her, even feeling proud of his provocative pronouncements on race.  I think she is overwhelmed by his sureness and him being so different from herself. I really identified with Rosélie and was often shouting ‘just leave him’ in my head, knowing that this relationship would crush her spirit.

Condé’s writing certainly affected me and I will be looking out for more of her work.

After a very tiring week, it’s a much-needed delight to catch up on the new issue of Belletrista.

I enjoyed the short stories by Amanda Michalopoulou and Vanessa Gebbie. Although very different, both are quite odd – in a good way.

As for the reviews, A Good Land by Nada Awar Jarrar goes onto my wishlist. Lebanon has always fascinated me so this tale of three people living through war in Beirut sounds right up my street. The Tea Lords, Hella S. Haasse’s novel about Dutch colonists in Java, also tempts me as it includes two of my favourite things – history and tea!

Posted by Char

Last Tuesday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  It seemed to get a lot of press–perhaps because it was the centenary celebration. That morning, when I opened up my e-mail and Facebook page, I was flooded with all sorts of interesting messages in honour of the day. Each day since then, I’ve stumbled across International Women’s Day related media every time I sit down at my computer.

First, both a friend and Brightwide (makers of social and political films) sent me a link to the short piece EQUALS, with Judi Dench and Daniel Craig reprising their James Bond roles. One of their many staggering statistics is the fact that women are responsible for two-thirds of the work worldwide, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property.

Then Doctors Without Borders directed me to an article in the Huffington post on Fistual: a Horrifying Condition Affecting Women Worldwide. Caused by complications of childbirth, fistula is not a disease, but a preventable medical condition. It is a public health issue that scars women in impoverished areas of the world, particularly Africa and Asia, forcing them into lives of shame and despair. Women who suffer from this lead lives of isolation and are unable to work outside the home.

On a happier note, I also got a message from Ten Thousand Villages, a not-for-profit program that creates “opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term fair trading relationships.” I drooled over all the great products made by women from all over the globe, and felt that perhaps there is something possible beyond “shame and despair.” The key here, once again, is clearly gainful employment.

The United Nations’ theme for this International Women’s Day is Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science & Technology: Pathway to decent work for women. Which brings me to the second part of my title, women writers. Well, one woman writer; South African Sindiwe Magona, to be exact. I’m currently reading Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, which is a collection of her short stories. The first part is a series of interconnected stories that tell the experiences of various African women working as maids for white people. These stories were striking, and especially pertinent to this theme of “decent work.” Through her characters, Magona shows how domestic labour can be little better than slavery, and how it certainly doesn’t qualify as “decent work.” I’ve been thinking about this, and Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, all week. In my opinion, the sign of a great book  is one that stays with you, and makes you think.

I’d like to say more about Sindiwe Magona’s book, but I will make myself stop here as I will be reviewing it for a future issue of Belletrista. Stay tuned for more.

The past couple of weeks have seen a flurry of news stories relating to women’s writing. Here are a few things that have caught my attention.

Invisible Women

Last night I went to a discussion event at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The subject was the continuing invisibility of women’s writing in prize lists, major review publications and the like, despite the fact that women write more books, buy more books and read more books than men. It seems that the literary world still considers that women write ‘domestic’ novels about family and feelings, while men write the classic works that speak to the big questions facing humanity.

Vida, an organisation that seeks to ‘explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women’, has produced research which shows that major literary publications (such as The Paris Review and the New Yorker) are reviewing more books by men than by women and interviewing more male than female authors. They majority of reviews they publish are written by men. Other research has indicated that men tend to read books by men and take their reading recommendations from authoritative sources such as literary magazines. So men are choosing books suggested by other men which are very likely to be written by men, and unfortunately the world of prizes and judging also seems to be dominated by books written by men.

As the author Kate Mosse pointed out last night, prize long and shortlists do matter. In a hundred years time, these lists will tell people what books we considered to be important and valuable. The world of 2111 will be forgiven for thinking that the works their ancestors held in the highest regard were almost always written by men.

See also:

An analysis of the Vida research by The New Republic

A discussion of what constitutes the Great American Novel


The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional shortlists have been announced. Nominations include Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone; Forna is on the judging panel for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing), Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa), Emma Donahue (Canada), Helen Dunmore (UK) and Whiti Hereaka (New Zealand).

One woman appears on the recently announced shortlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa has been nominated for her book Hotel Iris.

Nawal el Saadawi

Shortly before the downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the writer and activist Nawal el Saadawi gave her thoughts on the changes happening in her country in an interview with Ms. Magazine.

Maya Angelou receives award

Earlier this week American author and poet Maya Angelou was presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Posted by Char

Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty, published by The Guardian:

The past few weeks have seen extraordinary political upheavel and social unrest in North Africa. The protests that originally started in Tunisia now seem to be engulfing Egypt.

Like many people I’ve been glued to the rolling coverage on Al-Jazeera English with its footage shot from the window of the TV station’s Cairo office. The streets are full of men shouting for the downfall of President Mubarak. But how are Egyptian women making their feelings known? Prominent writer Ahdaf Soueif  published an article in The Guardian, a UK newspaper, on Thursday 27th January about the popular uprising. It would be good to hear how other Egyptian women who are participating in or writing about these momentous events.

Soueif has also contributed to the paper today as part of a collection of ten Arab writers’ reflections on the legacy of the Tunisian protests. Moroccan writer Laila Lalami feels a sense of excitement about the possibility of change; Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese poet, is unsure that what is happening in Africa will change life in Beirut. (Click on the coloured tags on the map at the beginning of the articles to access other writers’ thoughts)

I have a sense of hope but feel uncertain about whatn the future holds. Will whatever happens this weekend lead to real and lasting changes in Egyptian society and in other countries in the region? Will the gender oppression against which writers like Nawal el Saadawi rail so vociferously actually be broken down?

Posted by Char

After a hard day at work I arrive home to find that the new issue of Belletrista has been published. Lovely!

My highlights:

  • Julie Mignone’s review of Skylark Farm by Antonia Arslan. This book is sitting on my shelf just begging me to pick it up. After reading Julie’s review I have bumped it to the top of my ‘to read’ pile.
  • We Are A Muslim, Please written by Zaiba Malik (with a great review by Darryl Morris) about her experiences of growing up in Britain as a Muslim of Pakistani descent. One of our female Muslim politicians recently commented that Islamophobia has “crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability” and is now seen as uncontroversial. It’s certainly true that Britain claims to be a multi-cultural society while often the reality is very different.

What’s caught your eye in Belletrista this month?

Posted by Char

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