Belletrista Blog

Archive for October, 2010

I’ve just spent an hour or so in the company of Suad Amiry, a Palestinain writer best known for her book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law which describes her family’s experiences during the 43 day curfew imposed on the residents of Ramallah by the Israeli army in March 2002. Amiry is in London to promote her new book, Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18 Hour Journey with Murad. I saw her being interviewed by Jo Glanville (Editor of ‘Index on Censorship’) at the Southbank Centre.

Amiry is a fantastic storyteller. She uses the stories of individuals to illustrate the desperate situation Palestinians have to live in, concerned to show the real texture of life in Palestine rather than the single stories of victim or aggressor that she believes have led to Palestine becoming a cliché. The stories she recounts are often humorous; she rebels against the situation by making fun of it, saying that in Palestine you either laugh or cry – there is nothing in between.

Intelligent and forthright, Amiry does not pull any punches when talking about Israel and the land they have stolen from her people. She became visibly upset when recounting how her father returned to the home he lost in 1948 only to find that the family now living there would not let him in to the house. Her anger and incomprehension also came through clearly. Why, she asked, don’t Israelis notice that for Palestinians to accept the idea of a two state solution is a huge step?

Amiry’s new book is about the 18 hours she spent with young Palestinian men as they entered Israel illegally to find work. As well as being incredibly dangerous (people have been shot dead trying to cross the wall that Israel has erected between territories) this experience has given her a new perspective on her country’s future. While she feels uncomfortable in Israel, her young companions move easily between the two cultures with little fear. Perhaps these migrant workers, and the thousands of others like them, will enable a solution to be reached one day.

For each stop on my ‘cruise’, I’m going to try and read at least two works by each writer. The first author that I have encountered is Jamaica Kincaid.

A Small Place

A Small Place is a collection of essays that analyse the impact of British rule, American influence and tourism on the island of Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid’s birthplace.

The first essay is addressed directly to those who visit the island for a holiday. It’s sarcastic and has a sly wit, talking directly to the tourist, reassuring them that it’s OK if you don’t think too deeply about the problems you can see in Antigua, you’re on holiday after all. She shines a light on the social and political issues of the island, the continuing neagtive impact of colonialism and the ineptitudes of the governments that have followed the granting of self-rule – exactly the things that a thoughful visitor should take notice of.

Kincaid then goes on to write about the Antigua she grew up in, with its streets named after English ‘maritime criminals’ such as Horatio Nelson and the branch of Barclays Bank (founded by slave-traders), and the casual racism and cultural oppression of the British – making Queen Victoria’s birthday an official holiday, for example. But she isn’t afraid of criticising her fellow country people: ‘We didn’t say to ourselves, Hasn’t this extremely unappealing person been dead for years and years? Instead, we were happy for a holiday.’

In the third essay, Kincaid sharpens this focus on the Antiguans themselves, asking ‘Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than when it was dominated by the bad-minded English?’. She uses the image of her local library, damaged in an earthquake in 1974 and still left unrepaired at the time of writing in 1988, as a symbol of the political indifference and wekaness.

A Small Place was an uncomfortable read for a person from the UK – exactly what Kincaid must have set out to achieve – but it isn’t preachy or boring. It’s the kind of book that a large part of the British and American populations (especially politicians) should be made to read.

Figures in the Distance

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads and discusses Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, ‘Figures in the Distance’, for the New Yorker’s monthly fiction podcast. Originally published in the magazine in 1983, the story is about a young girl coming to terms with the concept of death and also about her relationship with her mother.  Kincaid explores the obsession children often have with death and I think she really captures the sometimes odd but weirdly logical tangents that their thoughts can take.  The story later became the first chapter of Kincaid’s novel, Annie John, which I’ve added to my wishlist – I want to find out more about what Kincaid has to say.

I’ve just been having a think about the books I read that are translations of women’s writing.  They’re all contemporary, or current translations of older texts. What about earlier writing?

I’m sure ‘Western’ women had access to translated works by other Western women but did they also have the opportunity to read the works of women from Asia, the Middle East, Africa or South America?

I have a feeling that this might turn into a little research project over the winter. Are there books that you know of that were written by women and translated before 1900?

I’ll keep you updated on what I discover.