Monday, 10 May 2021

Who’s Loving You? (editor: Sareeta Domingo)

: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In her introduction to this collection of short stories she has curated, Sareeta Domingo remembers how: “Between the pages of my beloved books, it soon became apparent that neither tales of romantic woe, nor the sexy bonkbusters I’d eye curiously on the shelves {…}, nor even those sophisticated, classically revered literary tales of love and honour, featured any people who looked like me.” Did that mean, she asked herself, that love and desire were not for young people of colour like her?

In response to that, and because she loves the romance genre, Domingo curated this anthology “to create space for British women of colour to write about romantic love in all its many guises.”

If Bolu Babalola’s short story collection, Love in Colour, reached back into folklore for its inspiration, these stories are contemporary – or in some cases futuristic. In Varaizo’s ‘Long Distance’, a love affair with a heart-breaking twist blossoms over a near-future vision of social media. ‘No one is Lonely’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan takes place in a London that has been engulfed with floods, “where wilting bunches of flours are tied to posts where the drowned were lost.”

There are gay characters and straight, cis and trans. Sara Collins ‘Brief Encounters’ brings the classic tale to present day London with new energy, while in Daniell√© Dash’s ‘The Row’, a woman fleeing a relationship gone wrong finds solace in the tender touch of a hairdresser’s fingers. Dorothy Koomson’s ‘My Heart Beats’, features a couple whose relationship seems to be a sequence of missed opportunities – can they finally connect?

Domingo’s own ‘The Waves Will Carry Us Back’ features a refugee rescued from the sea by a surfer, while Kuchenga’s ‘Rain … Doubtful’ gives us a transwoman finding unqualified love and acceptance.

The stories travel the world too. Returning to Iran for a mother’s funeral results in a meeting of hearts and minds in a wholly unexpected location in Sara Jafari’s ‘Motherland’. In Kelechi Okafor’s ‘The Watchers’, a kind of guardian angel drawn from Nigerian cosmology watches over a pair of souls who meet time after time as they are reincarnated into different lives. In Amna Saleem’s ‘Rani’, a grandmother’s tale of love during Partition interweaves with her granddaughter’s.

These are tales with an edge to them. The women in them are empowered – they choose love, or reject it, on their own terms. There are stories that are tender, erotic, funny and tragic. They are rich with sentences that distil and capture emotion, whether it is Sara Collins on being assailed by grief:

“There is nowhere in the train station where she can scream or pound her knees or keel over, nowhere to make cow-like noises, why don’t they build somewhere like that – like public toilets, but for grief?”

Or Amna Saleem on a child carrying the weight of family expectations:

“Conspicuously linking me to a rich ancestral tapestry where growing up, I half expected to discover I was a latent vampire slayer waiting to become the brown Buffy Summers of Scotland”

There is something, surely, to appeal to everyone. Certainly a heartfelt demonstration that, as Domingo says: “Love is inside us – all of us.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love In Colour by Bolu Babalola, The Nearness of You by Sareeta Domingo

Avoid If you Dislike:  Love in all its shapes and sizes

Perfect Accompaniment: A chilled glass of your favourite bubbly

Genre: Romance, Short Stories

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Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Inferno by Catherine Cho

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Three days before the traditional Korean 100-day celebration for the birth of her son, Catherine Cho found herself in hospital, suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Cho writes with acute self-awareness, both about her breakdown and about her life leading up to it. The book travels along parallel lines – one that begins with Cho finding herself on a secure psychiatric ward and chronicles her experience through hospital to her release, and the other which reaches back, to her childhood and early adulthood, searching for the roots of her breakdown.

She remembers life in her near silent home, with a father who vented his volatile temper on her younger brother and disapproved of anything resembling pop culture – delivering a childhood like a 20th Century version of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.

“My father wanted his children to be clean thinkers, unpolluted by commercialism. He has a vision of raising us apart from the world, off the grid, away from any pre-dictated rules except his own.”

Then there was the violent domestic abuse of a previous relationship, that left her stranded and isolated, far from home in Hong Kong.

Having risked all to move across the world for one relationship, she does it again – this time to move to London with her husband. She and James are profoundly happy and the birth of their son Cato seems only to put a seal on that happiness. But then they plan a trip of a lifetime to visit family in the US. It’s tiring and stressful – and cultural pressures from their extended Korean families build up, as well-meaning anxieties about mother and child cause them to reach back deep into tradition.

Koreans, she explains, as suspicious of happiness and romantic love. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow. As for love, it is thought of as an unfortunate passion, irrational and destructive.”

As the pressures pile on, Cho’s mind begins to blur the boundaries between reality, dreams and mythology. Cho conjures up for us the tragic heroines from the folktales she grew up on – Sim Chung, who sold herself as a human sacrifice to save her blind father; Nong Gae, the courtesan who danced an invading general off a cliff. Perhaps she needs to sacrifice herself for James and Cato?

Cho’s clear and poetic language beguiles us along a path, until her breakdown seems as inevitable to us as it must have done to her.

I have to admit, I approached this book with some trepidation. I had memories of being required to read Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as a set text in high school and finding fascinating but utterly terrifying. Yet shocking as the scenes are where Cho recalls in detail the hours and minutes of her psychotic break – this is a book that offers a lifeline of hope to those suffering from post-partum psychosis, and to those who love them.

Profound, honest, revealing – and ultimately hopeful.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (orig. under the name Hannah Green), Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Avoid If you Dislike: Confronting the vivid details of a psychotic break

Perfect Accompaniment: Seaweed soup

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir

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Thursday, 29 April 2021

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

This complex debut poetry collection by Rachel Long is structured in three parts.

The first part, Open explores issues of sexuality, power, exploitation and consent. Poems such as “Night Vigil”, “Apples” and “8” point darkly to child sexual abuse within a church setting.

“During the Three Members prayer, my sister fell asleep
Under a chair, so she never knew
How I sang. Or how I fell silent
When the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here child”

“Sandwiches” and “Bike” suggest teenage exploration that may or may not have gone to far and exposed the narrator to danger, while in “Helena” a sex worker relives an act of rape by co-worker.

In a sequence of short poems called “Open”, the poem’s narrator wakes in the morning with her mouth open and her hands in her hair, the pose interpreted for her in different ways by different observers.

“What, mum, like screaming?
She says, No, baby, like abandon”

In the second section – A Lineage of Wigs – the poems revolve around Long’s Nigerian mother and Long’s own experiences as a young child.

“Mum’s Snake” tells the story of a curse put on her by her sister, ultimately forcing her to shave off her hair, while “Car Sweetness” captures a moment of tenderness between her parents.

“Some long journeys back,
Mum would lay her hand
Over Dad’s on the gearstick”

There are poems that recall the experience of growing up as a mixed-race child – her schoolmates doubting her fair-haired father is hers, and contrasting her sister’s long, straight hair to hers. Her scalp burning as her mother cornrows her hair.

“All the ‘sheep’s wool’ they love to touch and say eww to at school
has been harvested into rows at the top of my head:
black crown or web.”

The final section, Dolls, is a more generalised exploration of racism. It begins with a pair of poems in which the story of a racist attack is then played out between three dolls – Barbie, Ken, and the dark-skinned Steve. “Black Princess” then painfully reflects the snobbish and racist treatment of Meghan Markle.

Throughout the book there are other poems that are more surreal – their meaning elusive. This isn’t a collection that gives up its secrets easily – but it is one that more than rewards the effort of close reading.

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, Costa Poetry Award, Forward Prize for best first collection, and the 2021 Jhalak Prize

Listen to Rachel Long reading from My Darling From the Lions at the Coronet Theatre, Nottingham.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Avoid If you Dislike: Poems that refuse to give up their meaning easily, challenging the reader to work things out for themselves.

Perfect Accompaniment: Sugared almonds

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 26 April 2021

Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Romalyn Ante's debut collection is full of poems that track the experiences of two generations of Filipino emigrants who have left their country to work abroad, for the NHS and elsewhere.

Romalyn Ante herself came to the UK when she was 16 and is now a nurse practioner. Her mother, like so many others, had previously left her family behind in the Philippines in order to work for the NHS.

Ante’s poetry unveils the truth behind the flippant comment by the Duke of Edinburgh quoted on the opening page (“The Philippines must be half empty; you’re all here running the NHS”) – laying bare the homesickness, the separation from one’s children, the long hours of hard work for little thanks, the racism…

In “Manananggal” she compares the migrant to a creature from Filipino legend which splits itself in two.

I am halved in order to be whole – I rebuild by leaving everything I love.”

The poems also disclose some of the reasons why these workers stay, even in the face of hardship and hostility. They will cannot leave:

“Not until Junior has got his diploma, not until we have nailed a roof on the house and the pen grunts with pigs […] and we have paid off our parents’ grave plots and our children’s …”

In “The Shaman, The Servant” we can see the contrast between the respect shown to a grandfather who was a shaman, a healer, with the image painted “Invisible Woman”of “goddesses of caring and tending, but no one hears when their skulls pound like coconut shells about to crack.”

Ante reminds us that this is a pattern that has been repeated across generations. In the series of short poems scattered through the book, “Tape Recordings for Mama”, she captures the point of view of a child trying to understand why her mother has left.

The poems blend phrases from Tagalog and elements of Filipino culture and tradition with medical jargon and details of hospital procedure. Ante’s use of language is at once challenging and playful. In the ironically titled “Mastering English”, structured like a test paper, she toys with English idioms,

“The phrase a drop in the ocean indicates:

- Very little in comparison with what is expected or needed

- All the migrants who mysteriously vanished at sea.”

There are also poems that mourn the loss of traditional Filipino culture

“When the colonisers came, their brightness bleached the scripts inscribed on our bamboo stems. Our [memory*] was replaced with their hymn.

*written in Babayin script

These poems blend the deeply personal and specific with the universal sense of loss and longing that any immigrant cut off from home would recognise. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

Listen to Romalyn Ante reading from Antiemetic for Homesickness here

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Avoid If you Dislike:  Being reminded of loss and separation

Perfect Accompaniment: A shot of coconut wine

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here:

Monday, 19 April 2021

Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

The memoir opens with Massey’s realisation, at the age of eleven, that her mother is using their comfortable home in Leeds as a place from which to sell sex. She marks that as the point at which she split herself in two.

“In the pause, I am falling apart, literally becoming two people. I remain the plump playmate that Sarah takes me for, but I have also become someone else who floats just above us, watchful. Alert. This version of me knows that something has changed forever […] though I can pretend, that simple young girl has gone forever.”

By the time Massey was in her late teens, her mother had graduated from prostituting herself out of their back room to running a spa-cum-brothel in an industrial area of Leeds. Massey finds herself acting as receptionist, spending long hours chatting to the ‘girls’, recognising the sheer banality of the sex industry, “where good looking, decent women who could hold a conversation offered various sexual services in exchange for money. “

But Massey’s story is far more complex than that one eye-catching headline. There’s the sense of loss associated with her all-but non-existent relationship with her absent father; her complicated relationship with food that goes back to a stepfather who fed her sweets to comfort her for the pain caused by his own tormenting; the issues she has faced as a mixed-race child in an otherwise all white family, and the rarely-spoken-of death of her middle-brother.

The memoir braids together three timelines – Massey’s own childhood, her mother’s younger life, and the present day as she tries to piece it all together and come to terms with her own struggles.

Massey’s writing explores her own ongoing depression and her troubled relationship with her mother with razor-sharp clarity. On bad days:

“Even the street beneath my feet feels somehow insubstantial, as if it may melt and I go through the sinking tarmac until the black sludge closes over my waist, my handbag, my necklace and finally my head and there is no trace of me left.”

At other times, “I walk the street towards Mam’s flat with my loneliness attached to my heels, dragging behind like a recently shed skin.”

There is a breath-taking self-awareness in the way she confesses that “I had made my relationships into broken clocks and gleefully reduced them to their parts. Spreading them out on the kitchen table, fascinated with the possibility in those shiny nuts and wheels, I always realised to late that there was no home of reassembling the, turning them back into something of purpose.”

A powerful study of family dynamics and the toxic legacy of secrets. Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Avoid If you Dislike: Memoirs of genteel dysfunctionality.

Perfect Accompaniment: Milky tea and cheese straws

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Sunday, 11 April 2021

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nate’s big brother, Al, had so much to look forward to. He was a straight-A student, a talented artist, and had a conditional place at Cambridge University. So when he commits suicide, Nate, and his whole family, feel as though they have been shattered into pieces.

Nate is consumed with finding out why Al took his own life, even though his quest takes him into some increasingly dark places and everyone – even his mum and his older brother Saul – are begging his to stop.

The only other person who seems to understand is Megan, a friend of Al’s who shares Nate’s guilt for not doing enough to help Al when they still could.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly shows, with deep compassion, how suicide, especially unexplained suicide, tears a hole through the hearts of friends and family. Nate is an utterly believable character; it is impossible to read this and not care about him deeply. Al too comes to vivid life on the page, despite the fact he dies three days before the story opens.

Jawando brilliantly captures the way that social media can come to dominate the lives of young people: from unrealistic body images it portrays, to the compulsion to share every minute of every day, the constant intrusion of notifications – and above all the savage cruelty that at times it unleashes and enables.

Yet the author also shows how the internet allows voices to be raised up and shared across the world.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book that highlights the appalling and relentless pressures that can be piled onto teenagers in this age of social media. It comes as no surprise to learn that the novel is based in part on the author’s own lived experience.

I can imagine this book might be triggering for some, but for others, it may well help ease them through a difficult time, or to understand friends who are in a difficult place and need their support. It needs to be in every school library.

Shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton; Out of Heart by Irfan Master, Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Avoid If you Dislike: References to suicide and online bullying

Perfect Accompaniment: Images of the night sky 

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary

Buy This Book Here:

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Chaya may only be twelve years old, but she has already proved herself a talented thief. Not that she takes things for herself. She only steals to pay for things her struggling neighbours desperately need. And she’s very successful.

Until, that is, she over-reaches herself, goes too far, and brings down disaster on all their heads. From that point on, whatever she does to try and make things better only serves to make things even worse.

But with the help of the royal elephant, Ananda, could Chaya and her friends Neel and Nour actually do something that will bring about real and lasting change, and allow their village and their country to thrive once again?

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is set in Serendib, a fictionalised version of ancient Sri Lanka. The adventure takes the children from their village just outside the royal palace, deep into the lush jungle, where they will face dangers from leeches to leopards. Friendships and loyalties will be tested to the limit – and Chaya will have to learn that good intentions are not always enough.

A compelling adventure story in a wonderfully realised setting with a brave and resourceful heroine.

Longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Young Adult and Children’s Prize.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave; Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

Avoid If you Dislike: Leeches. Morally questionable heroines.

Perfect Accompaniment: Papaya

Genre: Children’s (Middle Reader)

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