Belletrista Blog


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.

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

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

The Lonely Planet has published their list of the best places in the world to shop for books. It’s a bit Euro-centric, but I agree that Daunt Books in London is fabulous and well worth a visit!

I always keep an eye out for bookshops when travelling. I can’t remember of the names of the ones I visited in Mysore, India, but there’s one on the outside of the main market that was great.  And a few years ago I spent a couple of happy hours frittering away the last of my holiday money in Dymocks in Sydney, Australia.

What bookshops have you visited, outside of your own country, that you can recommend?

In Issue 8 of Belletrista Tad Deffler, one of our reviewers, poses the following question:

As readers, we crave a story whose content and execution work together seamlessly to draw us in. Yet we don’t always get all we want, and the question arises: when all is said and done, what tips the balance and makes us glad we have read a book?

I’ve been trying to think of my response to this all day! Is ‘being glad to have read a book’ different from enjoying a book? One of the women in my real-life book group always declares that she’s glad to have read each month’s chosen text, but she doesn’t necessarily enjoy them all.

As a reader I’m searching for new experiences and  knowledge so I’m always glad to have read a book  that takes me somewhere that I haven’t been before – which is one of the reasons why I love Belletrista! But I can’t be as forgiving as my friend. If the execution is bad, I’m usually unable to see the merits of the content.

What makes you glad to have read a book?

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.


Egyptian author Adhaf Soueif (featured in Issue 6 of Belletrista) has posted a comment piece on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site about the parliamentary elections taking place in her country in November.

She explains the dominance of the ruling National Democratic Party and their moves against voices of opposition in the run up to the vote, and discusses the possibility of a boycott of the election.

You may have seen Belletrista’s recent tweet about the article Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, has recently written on Guardian Unlimited. In it she talks about her frustration with what she sees as the ghettoisation of women writers and women readers by the publishing industry. She highlights the recent adoring reception to Jonathan Rantzen’s latest work, Freedom, noting that a female novelist would never generate that kind of response because in America the literary ‘heavy hitters’ are exclusively male. Jodi Picoult has called them the ‘white male literary darlings’. I’d argue that there is a similar situation here in the UK. While writers such as Hilary Mantel and Jeanette Winterson sometimes get a look in, white male middle-class authors such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis are so often cited as our intellectual literary cultural icons.

Shriver also takes publishers to task about the way books written by women are marketed. The suggestions from a German publisher for two of Shrivers books that are written from a male point of view are covers with images of women. I haven’t read her other work but if We Need to Talk About Kevin is anything to go by, Shriver’s books do not warrant a remotely girly cover!

The marketing of books written by women to women readers drives me crazy. I recently read a book that was written by a woman but told entirely from a male point of view; the cover was a whimsical, romantic, soft  image of a young woman. But not the whole picture of a woman – just her body in a pose that suggested she was running away playfully from the camera. This was not a playful story.

I feel like I’m seeing this kind of cover art more and more. Images of women on book covers very often don’t actually show a woman’s face, just a mysterious, elusive figure. Is that what publishers think women aspire to be? Or is what they think women should be? They also seem to think that we only really like books that are pink or sparkly or have swirly writing on the cover. The London Underground is full of ads for books marketed in this way – as you can imagine, my journey into work often makes me angry.

Shriver tries to suggest an alternative for her novel, Game Control – a photo of sagging elephant carcasses. Unsurprisingly the publishers rejected that!