If you want a novel that’s visceral, grotesque, hilarious, dark and somehow leaves you with a grim secondhand hangover, Eliza Clark’s debut, Boy Parts, is the one. That being said, it’s also rife with content warnings so proceed with caution.
Irina is a fetish artist from Newcastle. She likes to photograph men in vulnerable and compromising positions and doesn’t always realise when she’s gone too far. Or she does, but just doesn’t care. She knows her conventional beauty can hide a multitude of sins. An unreliable, narcissistic and downright horrible narrator at times, Boy Parts follows the six months or so in the lead up to Irina’s London exhibition, which she coincidentally lands soon after being put on sabbatical from her job at a pub.
Obsessively scouting the streets and aisles of her local Tesco for her next model, Irina manages to get by with a bag of salad for dinner most days and generous pay cheques from a mysterious online donor. Moving from London, a city of immense opportunity for art sector jobs, where she studied a bachelors and masters in art to the North East, which receives far less funding, is a point of contention for Irina. Since moving back she has all but fallen off the radar and you can’t help but side with the derisive comments she makes about her privileged London-born peers.
Mostly told through the perspective of Irina, almost like an internal monologue, we witness her obsession with appearance, with certain men, with drugs and alcohol, with making her best friend, Flo, jealous. Flo’s secret (but not so secret) blog posts highlight that she is aware of how Irina manipulates her, yet she is content to vent and carry on participating in this vicious cycle. As the novel progresses, the control Irina has over her own narrative begins to slip. Memories from her past resurface and project themselves onto her present, or do they? It’s not clear, and that uncertainty is deliberate.
Compared to the likes of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which I haven’t read personally but have heard experiences from friends which is enough to put me off, Clark’s debut is infused with a freshness of perspective. The observations Irina makes are astute and cut to the bone. The secondary characters orbiting around her, unable to sever ties, allow her to get away with an unspeakable number of horrors all because they are enamoured by her beauty. In Irina, Clark makes very clear that beauty and thinness does not equate to goodness.
Boy Parts is an incredibly compelling and immersive read that evokes a lot of pretty strong emotions. It may not be for everyone but I thought it was inventive and brilliantly written with touches of humour, although dark, to lift the mood. I look forward to what Eliza Clark publishes next.
Boy Parts by Eliza Clark is out today. Thank you Influx Press for the review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Founded in 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women In Translation Month (#WITMonth or #WomenInTranslation) aims to encourage readers to explore literature in translation by women writers. Although mostly geared towards English-language readers (as English tends to dominate the translation market), it also includes other languages. As Meytal Radzinski states on her blog, translations make up a small percentage of new books published each year and roughly only 30% of these new translations are of books by women. Therefore, putting the focus on women is an attempt to redress the balance and make finding books in translation by women easier for people to find. There is a really brilliant article on Lit Hub from last year about Meytal’s initiative, which you can read here.
Although free to read any and every book by women in translation for the month of August (and beyond), Meytal has specific goals this year to read and highlight women from countries, continents, subcontinents, and cultures that are too often underrepresented. It’s true that when I think of women in translation I automatically think of European writers, such as Elena Ferrante, Olga Tokarczuk, Tove Jansson, Svetlana Alexievich, and others. The same biases that have been exposed in publishing more broadly over the past couple of months seem to be particularly concentrated when it comes to translated literature; the question of which voices get publicised more and which ones don’t, who gets to translate the work and who doesn’t, are vital. Meytal explains it much better in her recent post here, please give it a read.
So in my own planning for Women In Translation Month I also want to include books by women who are underrepresented in translated literature. These include African women, Indigenous women, queer women, South Asian women and Southwest Asian (Middle Eastern) women. I’ll be reading off my TBR and Scribd but I’m sure I’ll be adding many reads to my wishlist as the month progresses.
I have quite a big pile of books that fall under the category of women in translation (pictured above) but I find making up TBRs quite stress-inducing. Instead here are the few books that are firmly on my ‘to read’ list for this month, any extras will be an added bonus.
Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, tr. from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul and published by Tilted Axis Press, 2020 (gifted by the publishers).
‘In thirteen stories that investigate ordinary and working-class Thailand, characters aspire for more but remain suspended in routine.
A politician’s wife imagines her life had her husband’s accident been fatal; an elevator attendant feels himself wasting away while trapped, immobile, at his station all day.
Witty, insightful and disturbing, this collection explores class, gender, and disenchantment in a changing country.’
Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, tr. from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha and published by Tilted Axis Press, 2017.
‘A powerful novel about a woman who runs away from home, seeking to free herself from the shackles of society and familial attachments, and instead devote her attentions to writing a novel. When she realises that her five year old son Roo has followed her, Ishwari struggles with her identity as a mother and the responsibilities that brings, versus the guilty knowledge that she cannot want her own child when his existence requires her to suppress her own dreams.
Ishwari and Roo wander the streets at night, looking for a place to stay, until an elderly caretaker takes pity on them and offers them an empty room on the terrace of a guest house. Ishwari gets work as a caregiver to the handsome gentleman who lives next door, while Roo, who is lame, spends all day locked up in the room on the roof. Pulsating with raw energy, Abandon gives voice to the perpetual conflict between life and art.’
Adua by Igiaba Scego, tr. from the Italian by Jamie Richards and published by Jacaranda Books, 2019.
‘Once a young girl in Somalia who wanted to be in films and escape the domineering grasp of her father, Adua is now an “Old Lira,” a woman who immigrated to Italy during the first wave in the 1970s. With the end of the Somalian civil war, Adua begins to seriously consider returning to the country of her birth. Sitting at the foot of the elephant statue that holds up the obelisk in Santa Maria square in Rome, she recounts her story, attempting to make sense of the past forty years and what the future might hold. When she first arrived in Rome and her film dreams ended in failure and shame, she knew she could not return to totalitarian Somalia and the vice-like purview of her father. Once a translator for the Italian colonial regime, her father’s past in Italy and the rest of his life in Somalia were characterised by attempts to live fully under the punishing hand of regimes, while Adua was left to reckon with the after-effects of his choices.
Adua is the unforgettable story of a father and daughter grappling with the implications of colonialism, immigration and racism that have bisected both of their lives.’
Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani, tr. from the French by Sophie Lewis and published by Faber & Faber, 2020
‘In morocco, the only acceptable sexual activity is between a man and his wife. Where all forms of extra-marital sex, homosexuality and prostitution are not only morally frowned upon but also punishable by law, women appear to have two options: be a virgin, or be a wife.
In these essays, Leïla Slimani meets and talks to young women navigating this oppressive system, and explores its cultural and philosophical impact on Morocco. The conversations produce intimate portraits of vibrant and complex lives and, in telling their intense, resonant stories, these women step out of the isolation of repression to impose their presence on a culture that at once condemns and commodifies sex.’
@readwit – Meytal’s Instagram page is currently doing a fifty day countdown to Women In Translation Month by spotlighting women authors who haven’t had international acclaim, some of them haven’t even been translated into English (yet).
Set around the turn of the nineteenth century in what is now present-day Mali, Segu by Maryse Condé is a sprawling and epic tale that spans generations of the Traore family as momentous change is on the horizon – change that is threatening the way of life for the Bambara people. Dousika Traore, trusted advisor to the king, is the patriarch and is in the prime of his life. But a strong sense of foreboding is blowing from the east and from the west.
The novel opens with Traore’s youngest son’s birth by his beloved concubine, a Fulani outsider. On the same day a white man is spotted approaching the gates of the kingdom, perhaps the first sign that something is amiss. Traore is subsequently summoned to the palace. Meanwhile, his enemies plot his downfall.
What follows is a tragic tale of family betrayal, religious zeal and colonial expansion in and around the kingdom of Segu. As Dousika comes to a fateful end, the narrative is taken over by his four sons. Tiekoro, the eldest, turns his back on the religion of his ancestors and accepts Islam, travelling to Timbuktu to become a religious scholar; Siga, the son of an enslaved woman who kills herself when he is a baby, becomes a merchant in Fez, a profession seen as beneath his noble title; Naba is kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to Brazil; and Malobali escapes the stifling demands of his elders to become a mercenary and later converting to Christianity. At the heart of each character is this tug for home, for Segu, no matter how far they travel physically and emotionally. Even for those who are unable to return, this yearning flows down into the bloodline of the next generation.
Condé’s writing is masterful. One minute the language is lyrical and rhythmic, luring you into a false sense of calm. Then suddenly the prose switches, becoming more direct and uncompromising. Although the level of violence and tragedy is expected from the outset, Condé manages to shock with the force of it.
It’s really interesting to read about and listen to Condé’s own experiences of the reception her books received. Apparently upon its release Segu was criticised by some for its portrayal of Islam. Although Islam has a much deeper history in the African continent than Christianity, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was still expanding, with varying levels of success, from the coast of East Africa to the West. What Condé tries to reimagine is Segu as a contested area which holds value to both the Christian colonial expansion projects and the slave trade from Europe and the Islamic spread from the east.
Exploring the struggles to preserve a history, culture and tradition in the face of antagonistic forces within and without the community, Segu brings to life a rich reimagining of pre-colonial West Africa – with the Bambara people centre-stage – in a magnificent multi-generational epic that is compelling to read from beginning to end. Although the novel demands to be read slowly and carefully, it is very much worth the time and effort. I don’t know where this particular story in Segu will end, the sequel Children of Segu is much harder to come by in English translation, but I’m really intrigued to find out.
Published by Penguin Classics in 2017, translated from the French by Barbara Bray.
First published in French as Segou in 1984.
About Maryse Condé
Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupe-born novelist with over twenty books in her oeuvre. In 2018 she won the New Academy Prize for literature, a one-off prize to replace the scandal-ridden Nobel Prize for literature of that year. This was only the second time a writer from Guadeloupe had won such a prestigious award, the first being white Creole poet Alexis Léger in 1960.
Further Historical-Fiction/Multigenerational Novels Set On The African Continent
The Old Drift by Nawali Serpell (2019) – A multigenerational epic entwining the lives of three Zambian families from the nineteenth century to the present-day, The Old Drift blurs concepts of genres. Historical, multigenerational, magical realist, futuristic are just some of the ways to describe Serpell’s impressive debut. A firm favourite I read last year.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (2018) – I read this immediately after Segu as it’s set in and around the same time. Attah explores with skill and complexity the internal slave trade and the scramble for Africa by European powers through the point of view of two distinctly different young women. Aminah is brutally separated from her home and family; Wurche, the wilful daughter of a chief, is desperate for power and respect. Their lives converge at the height of conflict towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016) – Another novel with multiple viewpoints, Homegoing follows the descendants of an Asante woman from the late eighteenth to the twenty-first century. Spanning Ghana to the US, Gyasi’s debut explores the impact of slavery in modern life.
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (2014) – Makumbi’s debut novel follows generations of Kintu Kidda’s bloodline, from 1754 to 2004, in a tale of curses, transgressions, Baganda mythology and sexism. Winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013, it was then published the following year by Kwani Trust and by Oneworld in 2018. It was by far one of my favourite reads of last year.
In the first six months of 2020 I read 62 books. Never in my life have I read so much in the space of so few months, but Covid-19 meant I was furloughed and unable to leave the house. It’s certainly not representative of the average number of books I tend to read. In fact, that number is probably my yearly average.
For 2020 I’ve been making an effort to record my reading in a spreadsheet after being inspired by this episode of the Reading Women’s podcast. We all have unconscious biases and these often present themselves in the books we buy and read. Although we may think we’re buying books based on the story alone, I think it’s really important to question which stories are being publicised more, given bigger marketing budgets to reach wider audiences, and being reviewed more in publications (just recently The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK Ireland 2009 – 2019 report found that the London Review of Books failed to publish a single review of a non-white poetry book or the writing of a single non-white poetry critic over that ten year period). These stories aren’t created and don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t immune to the systemic racism, sexism and homophobia endemic in Capitalist, neo-liberal society and, as a result, exist in the world of publishing.
Just like a few years ago when people were reckoning with the fact that they read fewer womxn than they thought, I think a similar reckoning is happening with Black writers and writers of colour in the midst of the Black liberation movement. It’s been incredible seeing Black writers topping bestseller lists in the UK and the US but also saddening that the reason for this was yet another Black person killed by the police. Hopefully this momentum to buy books by Black writers leads to reading books by Black writers and shifting publishing out of the white-dominated industry it has always been.
For the last few years I’ve exclusively read books by womxn writers. This year I’m trying to read more writers of colour (including some books by men). Next year I’m considering reading only books written by the global majority (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) as they make up 80% of the world’s population. That’s 80% of the world’s population that I haven’t been prioritising in my reading choices. It would also mean moving outside of UK/US dominated stories and seeking more books written in translation, which can only be a good thing.
Anyway, for now here are some stats from my reading so far this year.
books read: 62 (32 fiction, 25 nonfiction, 4 poetry collections, 1 graphic novel), 5 of these were rereads
pages read: 15, 907
books by those who identify as womxn: 50
books by writers of colour: 42
books by writers who identify as LGBTQIA+: 3
And here is a stack of my top ten reads of the year. You can visit my Instagram page for reviews of each one.
One of the few things that has made lockdown bearable is the way many authors, bookshops, book groups, festivals and individuals have adapted to the online space, making talks and events generally more accessible (if you have internet) and free (with the option of donating for those who can afford to). We’ve been in lockdown for almost four months now and I still haven’t got into the habit of adding these events to my calendar, so have unfortunately missed out on a few (luckily many of them, including the Haymarket Books Teach-Ins, are still available online). Some highlights have included watching Naomi Klein numerous times, along with Angela Davis and Arundhati Roy, the Hay Festival, WoW Global and many more.
Here are a few online events you may be interested in:
Pages of Hackney
What: Independent bookshop, Pages of Hackney, are hosting their first live event tonight (8th July) with a conversation between Naoise Dolan – whose debut book Exciting Times has been on all the anticipated 2020 releases lists as well as Bookstagram – and Olivia Sudjic (who I love). I’m not too interested in reading Dolan’s book but maybe this conversation will sway me. Later in the month Pages of Hackney have an event with Juno Roche and their book Trans Power (21st July).
When/Where: Tonight at 8pm BST and 21st July at 6pm BST on Instagram Live @pagesofhackney
What: To celebrate 50 years of Verso Books, this brilliant radical publishers are hosting events at the same time and day fortnightly up until the end of October. You can check out the full schedule here. Verso Books have been so good to us right from the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and during the movement for Black Lives Matter, offering free ebooks and resources to better educate ourselves and unlearn what we’ve been taught in this capitalist, racist system.
The first talk starts this Thursday (9th July) with Laleh Khalili, author of Sinews of War and Trade, and Rowland Atkinson, author of Alpha City. They will be discussing ‘global flows of commodities, capital and people, as well as looking to the emerging horizons of change in a post-Covid world, and the likely impacts and changes on key urban centres’.
Other talks I’m looking forward to include: Judith Butler on the ethics of nonviolence; Priyamvada Gopel on media and publishing; Maya Goodfellow and Fernando Sdrigotti on workers rights and xenophobia in the UK; and Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe on women and slavery.
When/Where: Live-streamed to Verso Books’ Facebook and YouTube page fortnightly on Thursdays at 6:30pm BST. You can register at Eventbrite for free (links via Verso Books website), the events will be available to watch after too.
‘Future Threads’ Digital Programme at The Mosaic Rooms
What: The Mosaic Rooms is a non-profit art gallery and bookshop that is dedicated to promoting contemporary culture from the Arab world and beyond. They currently have a free online programme called ‘Future Threads’ which includes film screenings, talks on current affairs and family workshops. You can find the full line-up here.
Events include an online conversation with Afghan-American visual artist Mariam Ghani (13th July) about her projects What We Left Unfinished and Dis-ease, the role of cultural institutions in times of global crisis (23rd July) with Fatos Ustek, Elvira Dyangami Ose and Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, and storytelling workshops with Elias Matar (4th July – 16th August).
When/Where: Sign up for free access on The Mosaic Rooms website. Most of the events are held via Zoom.
Black and Brit-ish by Black Cultural Archives
What: An evening of poetry delving into the complexity of being Black and British in conjunction with Poetic Unity, a Brixton-based charity giving a voice to the voiceless. Poets and spoken word artists include Rohan Samuel, Naomi Elle and Memo Brown amongst others.
What:The Lit Collective (TLC) Sheffield are a new book club in Sheffield for young womxn of colour (14-18), which arose out of the lack of representation in the core curriculum. I’m so excited for this festival which centres and celebrates womxn writers of colour. Events include discussions of sisters in literature, a conversation with poet Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan, an open mic night for womxn writers of colour, a creative writing workshop with Danae Wellington and an evening with Yvonne Battle-Fenton, author of Remembered. What makes this festival even more exciting is that it has been organised by young womxn of colour too. Find the full list of events and links to sign up here.
When/Where: From 23rd – 25th July, unless otherwise stated all events will be available to watch on YouTube.
What: The Primadonna Festival in Suffolk began last year and was formed by a group of seventeen women from publishing and entertainment with the aim of giving prominence to work by women and spotlighting authors from the margins. This year they are organising online events which will include Kit de Waal, Mikki Kendall, Sinead Gleeson, Stella Duffy, Catherine Mayer, Dorothy Koomson, Anneka Harry and Monisha Rajesh. Find out more information here, with links to their YouTube channel too.
When/Where: From 31st July – 2nd August, content is free and will be available on their YouTube channel.
Revolution Is Not A One-Time Event, We See the Horizon: Abolition Now!
What: hosted by Silver Press, a brilliant feminist publisher in London (they brought together some of Audre Lorde’s powerful and essential speeches, essays and poetry in one volume for the first time in Your Silence Will Not Protect You), and organised by Che Gossett, Lola Olufemi and Sarah Shin, in collaboration with Akira, Revolution Is Not A One-Time Event is a schedule of online talks with activists, academics and artists as they reflect on abolition in practice every Monday throughout August.
This comes off the back of their hugely popular fundraiser, Revolution Is Not A One-Time Event, on 9 June 2020 for Black liberation (you can read the transcript here on The White Review). Unlike the other events I have included in this list, each event costs £5. Hopefully, each event will also be transcribed like the first to make it accessible to more people as it was such a life-affirming, inspiring and informative talk and I imagine these other ones will be too.
Find more information about the events and links to order tickets here.
When: Every Monday throughout August, hosted via Zoom. Tickets cost £5 for each event.
Bare Lit Online
What:Bare Lit Festival is an annual event, usually held in South East London, which brings together people of colour in the UK’s creative landscape for a weekend of talks, performances, debates, workshops and networking. Due to obvious reasons they had to put this on hold but have come back with a free virtual event series over the whole of August! You can find the line-up here, but some events I’m particularly looking forward to are: A Decade of Identity Poetry, A History of Women’s Writing with Royal Society of Literature, a reading with Meena Kandasamy and The Secret Life of Prisons podcast.
When/Where: Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4th August – 1st September on the Bare Lit website and the occasional Instagram Live @bare.lit.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
What: Full details of the online programme and how audiences can access events for free will be announced towards the end of July on the Edinburgh International Book Festival website (here), but there are set to be over 100 events for families, adults and children ranging from pre-recorded to live conversations with writers from all over the world!