Book 28 – Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train

Books I've read

The Girl on the Train, paula hawkins

I haven’t read a book this gripping in ages. I started it on the way to work, on a train, on Monday morning. All day at work on Monday I thought about it, and then read it on the way home again. Tuesday morning, same deal. But Tuesday evening, I came home and got straight into bed to keep reading and finished the whole thing. I literally had to force myself to stop reading to eat dinner – not something that has happened many times in my life I will tell you. I was gripped from the very first chapter, and was thrilled right to the end.

The book follows the story of Rachel, who takes the train to London each morning. Frequently, she watches the same house and starts to form a picture of the couple that live there. She believes they’re madly in love, and to an extent idolizes their relationship or at least the relationship she’s created for them in her mind. She calls them Jess and Jason, and imagines careers and lives for them. To her, they’re the perfect couple. Then one day, she sees something strange happen on their balcony, and soon, Jess is missing.

Rachel drinks too much, even on the train on the way home from work. The only reason she has started watching Jess and Jason’s house in the first place is because her ex-husband (Tom) lives in a house down the road with his new wife (Anna) and child – the same house that she and he lived in when they were married. For a while we’re not sure why, but you know that she’s not always 100% together, whether it’s because of drink or heartache. But, she believes she has seen something important that might help find Jess, and so she gets more involved than she should.

The exciting thing is, you don’t only get to hear from Rachel, but also from Anna and the woman Rachel soon learns is not called Jess, but Megan. Through each of their narratives you begin to piece together a more sinister tale.

The pace of this story is incredible. You keep thinking you’re going to stop reading, but then the end of a chapter lures you to the next. It was as gripping as Gone Girl – no, more gripping than Gone Girl. You’re never quite sure whose story to believe. Read it, read it, read it!!

Paula Hawkins was born in Zimbabwe, and now lives in London.

Lauren Liebenberg, Peanut Butter and Jam, fiction. Zimbabwe, South Africa

Book 25: Lauren Liebenberg: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Books I've read
Lauren Liebenberg, Peanut Butter and Jam, fiction. Zimbabwe, South Africa

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Having a sister is one of the best elements of my life. We used to fight a lot growing up, about almost everything (even who got to eat out of which particular bowl at breakfast). She is now one of my best friends and I love spending time with her. The thought of growing up together delights me.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is a story set in the late 1970s about two sisters Nyree and Cia O’Callohan who live on a remote farm in east Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). We learn of their farm, the workers on it, the war, and their parents relationship through Nyree’s eyes and as with We Need New Names and Gemsquash Tokoloshe this vantage point allows us to see and hear so much more than we could through the eyes of an adult protagonist. It also shapes the importance of certain elements – the war happening at that time is only relevant in so much as it affects their parents or the workers on the farm. More important is the relationship between the two sisters, and the way in which they experience the world together as a magical and mysterious place.

A more significant source of tension in their lives is the arrival of Ronin, their orphaned cousin, who is the product of a traumatic home background as well as the challenges of being an outcast at school. Added to this is their Grandfather’s dislike of the boy for reasons we only later discover, a dislike which spills over into their every interaction and which even at their young age, Nyree and Cia know goes too far. This exclusion of Ronin in many areas of his life creates a menace within him which causes chaos in the lives of the whole O’Callohan family at a time when the broader world around them also turns chaotic.

The book is gripping and requires that the reader explore their own sense of forgiveness and ideas such as social conditioning, trauma and healing. I found it very painful to read at some points, having to bite back tears on the train. It is powerfully moving because the bond that Liebenberg creates between the sisters feels so real and powerful. You want to protect all of the characters from the cruelty of the world, but the world within the book carries on beyond your control, much like the world outside of it.

Perhaps it is this that has stayed with me the most after the book. There isn’t much that we can control in this life except ourselves. The world will take the people we love from us, and it may never replace them. It may send someone into your life that you don’t expect, and that person, who didn’t exist in your mind before the moment of their arrival, can come to consume your every thought either for good or for bad. We never know what goes on in the lives of others and I think this means we have a responsibility to tread lightly, to act with kindness, to give people the benefit of the doubt. This can be painful at times because not all people are good people. Some may choose to hurt us, and others may enter our lives to heal.

This was Liebenberg’s first book and it certainly is an incredible debut.

Book 18: NoViolet Bulawayo: We need new names

Books I've read

WWe Need New Names, Zimbabwe, NoViolet Bulawayo

In December I won a short story competition. My prize was a Kobo Glo E-Reader which was delivered to me by post. I must admit that when Kindles and e-readers came onto the market that I was quite old school about the whole thing – I love the feel and smell of books, the time and care that is taken in designing covers, typesetting, and the choice of font and paper. I don’t think that these decisions and sensory experiences are separate from the way that I experience a book. I also love bookshops and second hand bookshops and I feel like e-readers and kindles don’t necessarily challenge that for me and my generation, but they might for the next. The thought that a generation of people could grow up without bookstores and books and libraries makes me want to write a science fiction where the inventor of the e-reader suffers from amnesia and can’t quite implement the idea. (I feel the same about a number of things from my youth (e.g the walkman) and it is only this trepidation around new technology that makes me aware that I am truly getting old).

Nevertheless, I received one, and was excited to see what it was like. We Need New Names was the first book I bought on it – cheaper than the paperback version, and it still had the cover I liked of the girl running. And so I began, reading short bit by short bit. After hearing NoViolet Bulawayo talk at the Open Book festival, someone who seemed to consider what they were about to say (an enviable trait) I had been interested to find out what her storytelling might be like, whether it too would be measured and thought through.We Need New Names was different, in a wonderful way.

I must admit that I’m entirely partial to books written from the perspective of children, and from the perspective of female protagonists, and it is through Darling, the 10 year old female protagonist that we discover the world of Zimbabwe, and of what the promise of freedom actually meant for so many people who lived and live there. Children are both more inquisitive about the way things work, and more honest about what they think is really going on. The choice of such a young narrator allowed Bulawayo to say things in an offhand and fresh way that could have come across as didactic had Darling been an adult. Children just tell you the way things are to them, without first reflecting on decorum. This is what brings We Need New Names to life.

I also really loved the names of all the characters – I won’t give them all away (but the Reverend’s name! What a triumph) but two of Darling’s closest friend’s names are Bastard and Godknows. It is these little techniques and flourishes that allow you to have humour during some painful and scary scenes in what was and remains a painful and scary situation in Zimbabwe. With Robert Mugabe just named the head of the African Union it seems impossible to wonder why no more has been done to resolve issues in Zim, perhaps only because of the lack of oil.

I think this is an incredible first novel, and it was perfect for an e-reader because I didn’t chicken out of reading a whole page because the amount of text I could see per page was so little that I just had to keep on going. Of course, it wasn’t the e-reader that kept me reading, it was the story. I look forward to Bulawayo’s next work.

Book 7: Petina Gappah: An Elegy for Easterly

Books I've read

Women, Writers, Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah, feminism

I found Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories at the second hand book shop near to my house. After many months of my fiance trying to convince me to download SnapScan, it was this particular book that made me do it. You see, I didn’t have any cash on me and the bookshop only accepts cash or SnapScan and so I did it. He was very pleased with that, and so was I.

Short Stories are not something I read frequently – occasionally I pick up a collection at a coffee shop, or in a book shop, to have a brief interlude in fiction. But I love the novel – I love getting stuck into characters and really having the time to get to know them and how I feel about them. But, Gappah’s collection came with the a recommendation from a very well known South African author on the cover, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I really enjoyed it. There are thirteen stories in the 274 pages and they are all about different elements of Zimbabwean society. Gappah is excellent on a sentence level – this was one of my favourites:

“Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of each other’s armpits.”

Those types of sentences make me jealous as a writer – it tells you so much about the people, the place, and the sensation of the scene that she’s trying to describe. My favourite stories, or at least the two that I have thought of most often since finishing the book about a month ago, were In the Heart of the Golden Triangle, and The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridgegroom. These stories tell so much about what it means to live in a polite society, where people lie to each other for the benefit of not causing a fuss.

But surely, this collection was meant to cause a fuss. The very first story begins with reflections on the Presidency and the state of Zimbabwe’s political leadership. Many of the following stories develop this theme without being extensions of one another. Gappah tells things as they are, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a lecture, or like she’s trying to force you to believe in her point. I love that it feels like the personal is political in all of the stories, and that the political is personal in many of them.

One of the saddest stories is The Maid from Lalapanzi. When I finished reading that one it made me think a lot about how much children miss growing up, and how painful it is when you suddenly realise that the world is not an equal, friendly place, but that it is unequal, and that you are either privileged or not. Those are hard realisations.

Each of the stories is really strong and so I looked up Gappah wondering if she had written any more. The Wikipedia entry on her is outdated, another reflection on how African women writers are not given the attention or credit they deserve. But, both her book and the page revealed that she is fact a practising lawyer. I love that! I’m always so pleased when I find other writers who are trying to work their ‘real job.’ I always wonder whether they have dual passions, or whether they are just biding time.

She writes for the Guardian too and was an Open Society Fellow. You can read a piece written by her for Chimurenga this month here.

I have never been to Zimbabwe but Gappah’s collection made it come alive for me. I can tell that this project is going to give me major wanderlust.

Book 5: The Pumpkin Seeds and Other Gifts

Books I've read, Writer profiles

fiction, poetry, women, Uganda

The Pumpkin Seeds and Other Gifts is a collection of writing from FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers Association.

The women writers in the book are from all around Africa and the collection emerged from them coming together at the 2008 FEMRITE Regional African Women Writers Residency. Lucky fishes!

FEMRITE was the organisation that along with the AWDF hosted the African Women’s Creative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop in July 2014 in Entebbe, Uganda. It was here that I bought all three collections from the residencies, and there will be no doubt that I’ll be reviewing them all. As Helen Moffett describes it in the Foreword, “the residency was magical.”

The residency produced some great writing, and instead of trying to capture the diversity of the stories in it, I’ll tell you a little bit about each of the writers. Part of the point of this project is to explore new women writers from Africa, so this was a welcome start. This exercise also made me realise the importance of documenting women writers, because I couldn’t find much information on some of the writers in this collection. So if you know a woman writer who doesn’t have a wikipedia page, go and add one!

  • Kingwa Kamencu

Kingwa Kamencu is a Kenyan writer and her novella To Grasp at a Star has won numeorus awards in Kenya including the second prize from the National Book Development Council of Kenya, and the first prize in the youth category of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

  • Hilda Twongyeirwe 

Hilda Twongeyeirwe is from Uganda and is one of the founders of FEMRITE, and is currently the coordinator there. She has published numerous short stories and a number of children’s books in Uganda. Her children’s book Fina the Dancer was highly commended by the National Book Trust of Uganda Literary Awards

  • Yaba Badoe

Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary film maker and journalist. She has also published a number of short stories, and a full length novel, True Murder. Whilst at the AWW14 workshop in July, we watched her incredible doucmentary, the Witches of Gambaga, which details the treatment of women labelled as witches in a camp in Ghana. It is an incredible documentary, and also led me to discover the music of Dobet Gnahore. So you see, reading African women writers is a whole new journey.

  • Colleen Higgs

If you’re a woman writer in Southern African then the name Colleen Higgs won’t be unfamiliar to you. Colleen founded Modjaji Books, and incredible publishing label that publishes only Southern African Women’s fiction. This label has put out more than fifty titles since 2007 and they are always getting nominated for awards so major kudos to Colleen for all the hard work she has put in! She is also a poet and writer herself and has published Lava Lamp Poems, the Half Born Woman, and Looking for TroubleFollow Coleen on Twitter at @modjaji_bks

  • Betty Mukashema

Betty Mukashema is from Rwanda who writes mainly for the media, and is a teacher by profession. Her dream is to help Rwanda establish a women writers association.

  • Winnie Munyarugerero

Winnie Mugyarugerero is a Ugandan writer who has published short stories in anthologies, magazines and newspapers. Her stories mainly explore the position of the woman and girl-child in Uganda. Winnie is a teacher by profession.

  • Constance Obonyo

Constance Obonyo is a Uganda writer who writes mostly for newspapers, but has also had several short stories published.

  • Mastidia Mbeo

Mastidia Mbeo is from Tanzania and is a member of the Tanzania Writers Association. She is a published editor and writer, and writes mostly in Swahili.

  • Philomena Nabweru Rwabukuku

Philomena Nabweru Rwabukuku is a Ugandan teacher of Language and Literature in English. She has published short stories and poems in different anthologies. She also recites poetry and performs oral literature. She is very interested in issues of women and children.

  • Margaret Ntakalimaze

Margaret Ntakalimaze is a writer from Uganda, and was the Founding coordinator for the Uganda Women and Children organisation. She has published numerous short stories in various collections.

  • Olivia Jembere

Olivia Jembere is a Zimbabwean writer, and at the time of the residency was one of the youngest members of the Zimbabwe Women Writers Association.

  • Helen Moffett

Helen Moffett is a writer and editor extraordinaire from South Africa. She is one of the three writers involved in the ‘Girl Walks Into a Bar‘ choose your own adventure erotica, and also writes poetry (I’ll be discussing Strange Fruit soon), and articulate rage articles about the failure of the South African government to do anything meaningful on women’s day (read them 2012, 2013, 2014).

  • Lilian Tindyebawa

Lilian Tindyebawa is a writer who has published both poems and short stories in various anthologies and is also a founding member of FEMRITE. She has published a young adult novel Recipe for Disaster, which is used as a supplementary reader in Ugandan schools. She has also published three children’s books.

***

So there you go. I feel somehow cheated that before reading this anthology I didn’t know about all of these women.It was a welcome experience to read so many new writers all in one collection. I think short story collections are going to be my go to for trying to read as many women writers as possible in this project.

What does that mean about the types of writers we are told to celebrate and to read? What does that mean about the categories of power involved in the books that we’ve read at school, or have been required to read at university? Why aren’t we asking those making the decisions why they are not including more women?