Belletrista Blog

Archive for January, 2011

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

I’m sure you’ll have seen news about the political upheavel that’s happening in Tunisia. Watching the news, I’ve realised that I know very little about the country. Other North African states have a much higher profile in the British press – Tunisia is really only known as a holiday destination.

So any suggestions for books written by Tunisian women that will give me a glimpse of life there?

Posted by Char

Another Dominican author, but I can’t resist promoting the work of Jean Rhys – one of my favourite writers.

Rhys is well known for her book Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, which tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester and how she became the madwoman in the attic. This book was published in 1966; before that Rhys had not published a novel for about 20 years and had disappeared from the literary scene – many people thought she had died.

While I do really like Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s Rhys’s earlier novels and short stories that fascinate me. Many of these are set in the demi-monde of 1930s London and Paris where young penniless women teeter on the edge of ruin. Her heroines (or should that be anti-heroines?) always owe money to their landlady, drink far too much and often risk sliding into prostitution to keep their heads above water.

I should really dislike these characters. They are so passive, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle! They allow horrible things to happen to them, allow themsleves to be dictated to by the whims of men and women of stronger characters. They are like ears of corn, buffeted and bent by outside elements, losing bits of themselves along the way, but somehow they remain standing. However I don’t dislike them. I’m fascinated by them and I don’t really know why.

Much of Rhys’s writing seems to have been based on elements of her own life.  The daughter of a Creole woman and a Welshman, Rhys often felt like an outsider when she moved to London as a teenager. She was dranw into the seedier side of life in European cities and her romantic entanglements were, erm, interesting to say the least.

For example, Quartet, originally published in 1928, is the thinly disguised tale of Rhys’s first marriage andher  affair with Ford Madox Ford. Marya, an English woman in Paris, marries a Polish emigre. He has some vague profession in art dealing – she doesn’t enquire about the details. Her husband is arrested on several fraud charges and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Marya is then taken up by the Heidlers, an English couple, who give her shelter. Marya begins an affair with the husband with the knowledge and collusion of the wife.

I think I’m attracted to Rhys’s stories for a couple of reasons. I get a voyeuristic frisson from reading about the inter-war demi-monde. Despite the grubby nastiness, it still seems glamorous somehow. Secondly, I’m fascinated by how many insults and how much poverty and degradation these women can absorb. There is something compelling about their release of any sense of responsibility or need to make decisions – something that frightens and intrigues me.

Other recommended works: Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and The Collected Short Stories.

Next stop on the cruise is Dominica (and New York) courtesy of Julia Alvarez.

Her book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is the story of four sisters who have to flee Dominica for the US because of their father’s political activities. Told in reverse chronological order, we see how these women, and their parents, have struggled to find their place across two very different cultures. The Garcias are a close family and the relationships are well-written, but Alvarez also shows the sibling rivalry and neuroses that often exist beneath the surface of family life.

I understand that this book appears on high school/university reading lists and I can understand why – it’s a very readable and engaging story which tackles an interesting subject in a straightforward way. There’s plenty of material there for essay titles. I don’t mean that as an insult; I’m just trying to say that Alvarez tackles her subject in an accessible way.