Boy Parts by Eliza Clark

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.

Getting Ready For Women In Translation Month

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).

Blurb:

‘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.

Blurb:

‘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.

Blurb:

‘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

Blurb:

‘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.’

Further Resources:

  • @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).
  • Meytal’s blog Biblibio.
  • @readingwithkt – Katie has saved lots of underrepresented translated lit in her highlights, recommended by fellow bookstagrammers as well as her own research.
  • Ten Translated Books You Can Read In A Day at Northern Bibliophile.
  • The 10 Best Translated Novels of the Decade at Lit Hub.
  • Tilted Axis Press – founded in 2015, this independent press aims to publish books that may not make it into English otherwise. They have a really exciting catalogue of original and radical books.
  • And Other Stories – publishes a large range of translated literature and is maybe one of the few publishers that are based outside of London/Oxford etc (they also run the Northern Book Prize).

Segu by Maryse Condé

Content Warnings: rape, violence, suicide

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.

Mid-Year Review

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.

Number of:

  • 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
  • translations: 9
  • 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.