Three years ago, when I started reading the writings of a woman from all over the world, I had no idea how this trip would surprise me, challenge me and, as life was getting smaller, would support me.
What I did know was that I needed to expand my library far beyond the canon. So, in June 2018, I started a blog where I would chart my course, collect tips from readers, and review all 199 books, poems, and stories. (I was more inclusive than some official lists – bringing in Palestine, Tibet, and Kosovo, for example). It was surreal in December of last year when I closed Le Déserteur by Hélène Kaziende from Niger, the very last country on my list. Taking the form of a letter to Africa, this short story explores the heavy decision to leave a place of origin. I had discovered Kaziende’s work through my research on Nigerian literature, and it took me months to locate a second-hand copy from the 1992 collection, Kilometer 30, where his story is printed. The pandemic meant it took me another six weeks to land at my door and an extra afternoon to brush up on my French, before I could read it. It was worth the wait.
There were many different routes for each of the 199 writers. My choices were guided by the incredible array of recommendations sent by my blog visitors from around the world. For some authors, like Kaziende, finding their books has been a long and winding process. For many European writers, it was as easy as spotting an intriguing paperback in a bookstore. For some countries, poetry was more easily accessible than prose. Among these was Turkmenistan: after doing some research, I came across the heartbreaking I Have Come Through Torments Within These Walls by Soviet-era poet Annasoltan Kekilova (translated by James Womack). It was one of the poems smuggled out of the Turkmen psychiatric hospital where Kekilova was detained for a decade due to her activism, and where she died in 1983.
I am sometimes asked what has marked me the most during these years. Without a doubt, it is the sheer resilience of women in all corners of the world. This project really made it clear that so many of the issues women face are universal. It is predictable and appalling that violence against women is such a recurring theme. In just one weekend, I was disturbed by an act of domestic violence in A Disobedient Girl by Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman, then an assault on a trans woman in Small Beauty by Canadian writer jia qing wilson- yang. The context changes, the misogyny remains.
On a lighter note, I took great pleasure in revisiting children’s literature for the first time since childhood. So many writers have navigated thorny issues beautifully. My favorites included The Magic Doll by Central African writer Adrienne Yabouza (illustrated by Élodie Nouhen and translated by Paul Kelly), which gently reflects on a mother’s struggle with fertility. I also learned a lot from Kaluti from Fijian writer Shazia Usman and her strong message of self-esteem for girls called “kaluti” – a derogatory term for people with dark skin. And then there was the unforgettable Teaote and the Wall by Kiribati writer Marita Davies, which helps young readers understand how the island nation is fighting climate change through solidarity.
And without solidarity during my own trip, I could never have hoped to discover the untold story of Andorran writer Teresa Colom, The Gravedigger’s Son, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, unearthed for me by the National Library of Andorra , or South Sudanese writer Stella Gitano’s elusive short, Withered Flowers collection of stories, translated by Anthony Calderbank, which ArabLit Quarterly mailed me so generously from London to Melbourne. I have come to know an extraordinary global network of readers, writers, translators, publishers, librarians, booksellers and publishers dedicated to the defense of women’s books in translation. And what’s more, the power of collectives is found everywhere in literature too. A striking example is Songspirals, a deep collaboration between five Yolngu women and three non-Indigenous Australians over a decade. Solidarity takes many forms.
If you’re looking for more recommendations for short readings, I’d say you can’t do better than the novel by Mauritian writer Ananda Devi, Eve Out of Her Ruins (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), or the writer’s novel. Equatorial Guinean Trifonia Melibea Obono La Bastarda (translated by Lawrence Schmel) – two stories of individuals struggling against oppression. Or if you like historical fiction, I suggest Au temps des papillons by Julia Alvarez, who reinvents the lives of the Mirabal sisters, symbols of hope and challenge during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
So where next for me? I am eager to explore more South American literature; Argentina was one of the few countries where I couldn’t limit myself to just one writer, in large part thanks to Charco Press’s bright catalog. It says a lot about the quality of the literature I read that I never diverged or took a break along the way – it was too absorbing.