Tag Archives: #WITmonth

Humanity in the face of atrocity: Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak

Translated from Arabic by Perween Richards (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s fair to say that The Sea Cloak is one of my most anticipated books… ever. Comma Press first started advertising it last Spring: author Nayrouz Qarmout was to appear at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2018, but her visa application was turned down twice by the Home Office. She just made it in time after the festival intervened on her behalf, and was then invited back this year to take part in a panel on migration and refugees – so publication was postponed in order to launch The Sea Cloak during Qarmout’s visit to the UK. So I’ve been looking forward to this book for over a year, and I can tell you that it was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% worth the wait.

Qarmout was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and was “returned” to her home in Gaza in 1992, making her a refugee for a second time, but this time in her own country. The Sea Cloak offers insight into life in Gaza, but without melodrama or exaggeration – for Qarmout, this is simply her home, her life, her political context that she is observing. Her background in journalism shows through in her writing: there is nothing partisan here, nothing that tells her reader to think or react in a particular way. Perhaps this is also an effect of her being an “outsider” even in her own country: rather than instructing, she lays out fragments and stories from her context, and offers them for interpretation. There are aspects that hint at autobiography or personal experience (for example, the female protagonists of both ‘The Long Braid’ and ‘A Samarland Moon’ are journalists, the protagonist of ‘The Sea Cloak’ “retreated into the past, to a sprawling camp buzzing with children playing marbles and forming teams for a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’”, and the bombing of a building in ‘Our Milk’ echoes an experience Qarmout describes as being intimately connected to her writing – she forced herself to write one story for every floor that was rebuilt), but the rich tapestry of everyday people presented in The Sea Cloak defies any narrow interpretation of the text as being the experience of only one person – the rhetorical question in ‘14 June’, “How many times has she jumped out of bed thinking that a bullet has punctured her window?” may very well be Qarmout’s own experience, but it is also doubtless the experience of anyone who lives in a warzone. Fictional characters live through real events, such as in this depiction of a restaurant bombing: “The waiter staggers for a moment, still standing in the rear half of the restaurant that hasn’t collapsed. His face gushes with blood – some invisible piece of shrapnel has sliced his cheek – but he barely notices it. All he can do is stare at the splashes of colour that fringe the rubble: strips of tapestry and flesh, both heavy with history.”

Not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Many of the short stories have women’s experience at the fore: in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl struggles with the transition to womanhood and the restrictions that this forces on her; in ‘The Mirror’ there is the memory of a sexual assault; in ‘The Long Braid’ a schoolgirl is told by her teacher that emancipated women are “sluts”; in ‘Breastfeeding’ a mother and father want something better for their daughter than becoming “entangled in the traditions that they themselves were raised with and could never escape”, only to discover that all options lead to restriction. Life is too often decided for these women, but in many cases other women uphold this patriarchal society. Yet Qarmout’s characters try not to be, or not to remain, victims. These are not stories of misfortune but of life, and the strength of The Sea Cloak comes from not having one definable agenda, but rather a collective one: destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion (read ‘White Lilies’ in particular), showing us that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

As for the language and the translation, both are excellent. Qarmout’s writing has a wisdom and clarity, and a richness of expression that is both exciting and compelling. Perween Richards translated all but the title story of the collection (which was translated by Charis Bredin), and she conveys this richness superbly, bringing the text to a recognisable place without ever being untrue to its origins: the translation is careful and precise, yet not overworked. Richards was one of two winners of the Translate at City translation competition in 2016, and as far as I know this is her first major translation – and what a debut it is. This collaboration is a shining example of the best of connections: between people, places, cultures and contexts. The narratives might be shocking in their everyday candour and the lack of melodrama to describe the atrocities that have become commonplace, but there are nonetheless universal messages such as this one from ‘Breastfeeding’: “We all have to grasp at the chances we can in this life.”

This juxtaposition of extraordinary situations and ordinary lives is one of the most striking features of the collection: as Richards notes of Gazan life, “Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.” If there is everyday violence, there is also everyday experience – there is a new take on forbidden love in ‘The Anklet of Maioumas’, in which a girl and boy from opposite sides of the border hope to be together; in ‘A Samarland Moon’ two young people who have drifted apart – one towards religion, the other towards emancipation – try to remember what they loved about one another, and young boys work to advance in life in ‘Pen and Notebook’. There is no preaching or overly didactic comment – Qarmout’s characters go about their lives, and their lives just happen to unfold in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. I learnt a lot from reading The Sea Cloak, yet I didn’t feel “instructed” – I think this is a necessary book. We need this book in the west. We need to know, we need not to read only books in which we recognise ourselves. One character in ‘Black Grapes’ asks “When are they going to understand?” – this is the challenge laid down gently by Qarmout. Terror, violence and death abound, yet if there is one thing that truly defines this collection, it is humanity, and that is the connection that rises above all others. As Qarmout stated in her recent appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Suffering in revolution is a collective experience. I rebel. Then we exist. I believe creation is a revolution. Palestinian identity needs this revolution.” The Sea Cloak is indeed a quiet revolution, and I urge you to be part of it by reading and sharing these stories.

 

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

A delightfully subversive feast: Margarita García Robayo, Fish Soup

Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2018)

Fish Soup is one of my favourite discoveries of 2018: in it, Charco Press brings together a collection of novellas and short stories by Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, superbly translated by Charlotte Coombe. The three sections of Fish Soup are, in order of appearance, the novella “Waiting for a Hurricane”, whose narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave, the collection of short stories “Worse Things”, snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies which won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize in 2014, and the novella “Sexual Education”, a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia, which has not yet been published in Spanish.

Image taken from charcopress.com

García Robayo writes with brutal candour, creating strong female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they reject yet cannot escape. “Waiting for a Hurricane” is recounted by an unnamed narrator, growing up near the sea and longing to move away. She is dismissive of her family and wants something different for her own future: “I was not like them […] at the age of seven I already knew that I would leave. […] When people asked me, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’d reply: a foreigner.” This longing to be elsewhere pervades the narrative, blinding the narrator – or at least leaving her insensitive – to the way in which she is hurting the people who care about her as she pushes single-mindedly towards her goal.  She has several lovers in the course of her story: firstly, there is a mildly disturbing relationship as an adolescent with ageing raconteur fisherman Gustavo, then her first boyfriend Tony, who adores her but from whom she is implacably detached both emotionally and sexually (“I put my hands behind the back of my neck, as if I was doing sit-ups, and waited for Tony to finish”). Tony wants to marry her, but all she sees is a horizon before her, and everything becomes about escaping: “Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.” With this realisation, she becomes an air hostess, and is then courted by “the Captain”, who cannot give her what she wants, for though he offers a comfortable life and a fabulous apartment, “it was very beautiful, but it was still here.” Then, when she finally realises her dream of escaping, she meets Johnny (real name Juan), a larger-than-life (and married) wheeler-dealer gringo living in Miami, who eventually becomes the latest casualty in a sequence of losing people she “didn’t even care about.”

Coombe says of the first time she read “Waiting for a Hurricane” in Spanish that: “I automatically started translating in my head as I was reading. For me this is always a good sign with any book I read in another language; it means I can hear the voice, I relate to it and I am simply itching to put it into English.” This connection between translator and text is evident: the translation is pitch-perfect, and Coombe has an incredible ear for García Robayo’s characters (there are only two minor details in over 200 pages that I could even start to criticise). Coombe has embraced the outrageously crude tone of García Robayo’s writing and communicated it in all its visceral glory, not only in “Waiting for a Hurricane”, but throughout the volume. The seven short stories in “Worse Things” are peopled with characters who, as Ellen Jones notes, are “plagued by apathy and disaffection”: from the physical description of an ageing ladies’ man (“Leonardo was balding, and sweat accumulated each side of his widow’s peak, out of reach of the handkerchief he used to wipe his face every so often”) to the summing up of a suffering aunt’s unremitting averageness (“She was neither ugly nor pretty. And, as far as Ema could recall, neither was she good at anything in particular. She was utterly unremarkable”) and the relentless resignation of a morbidly obese teenager’s mother (“She thought it was better not to make things more complicated than they were; this was what life had given them, and things were fine. Relatively fine. What could be worse? So many things. There were worse things”), García Robayo’s sparing prose offers a piercing insight into characters brimming with abjection, fury, and disgust for themselves and their lives.

Sex in “Worse Things” (and throughout Fish Soup) is never tender or emotional, but savage, detached, or barely enjoyable. In some cases it is revolting even when consensual: “Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain; he jerked himself off with his other hand. He came with a loud moan, and slumped forward onto Inés, smearing his own semen under him.” In others, it is a simple transaction or perfunctory act: “she went down between his legs and sucked him off like she’d never done before”. Characters are either physically repulsive or emotionally repellent, their bodily fluids grotesque and free-flowing. But this is not just to make you shudder or grimace: in the marvellous “Sky and Poplars”, García Robayo uses an abject expulsion of breastmilk to reveal one of the most harrowing experiences of the collection.

Bodily abjection and unpleasant sexual encounters lead into the final novella in the collection, “Sexual Education”, in which a group of senior year girls at a Catholic school are subjected to an abstinence programme designed to combat the proliferation of unwanted pregnancies, with the result that “we spent a good part of our final year listening to Olga Luz prattling on about the virtues of the hymen and the unspeakable dangers of semen.” Sexual acts are at no point redeemed as enjoyable or desirable: when the narrator witnesses a moment of intimacy between her friend and her boyfriend, she explains how her friend “pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”

Yes, it makes you squirm. But there are also moments of great hilarity, such as the way the narrator dismisses her friend Karina, who regularly converses with the Virgin Mary, when she explains that the Virgin has instructed her that as long as the hymen is “safeguarded”, the girls may make love with other parts of their body, resulting in a generation of girls with “hymen intact, ass in tatters.” This is a pitiless narrator, and no-one emerges from her observations unscathed, not even herself. In fact, she has a self-awareness that made me chuckle:  when forced to attend a party, she dresses “as if I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the party or the people there, which meant I had spent hours trying on different outfits in front of the mirror.” These adolescent concerns are offset by darker episodes such as a horrific gang rape, and showcase García Robayo’s merciless exposure of a society where women have no agency.

The narrator’s uncompromising disdain for those around her is counterbalanced by the one time that she lets herself get carried away by instinctive emotion when she sees a boy at the party, and in an instant imagines their future, sailing away together into an improbably perfect sunset. Unwittingly, she has fallen for her friend’s new boyfriend, as she discovers when the friend appears and sits down on his lap, drawing a barrier between the narrator and her projected future: “Next thing I knew, burning rocks came raining down on our boat, just a few miles off Cadiz. We exploded into a gazillion pieces that momentarily blinded me, and then vanished into thin air, like a foolish hope.” The usually sardonic narrator experiences a pang of desire and loss that, as with the narrator of “Waiting for a Hurricane”, makes our awareness of her youth painfully acute.

García Robayo’s great talent is for presenting tragedy with mordant humour, and with Coombe unafraid to replicate the crude and caustic language, the result is a rollicking, darkly funny, occasionally disturbing, and delightfully uncomfortable collection that deserves to be widely read.

Charco are offering 15% off all women in translation titles until the end of August 2018: just enter the code #WITMONTH at checkout!

Review copy provided by Charco Press.

“Since I’d been born I’d been trying to get my mother to connect to life”: Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk

Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis (Peirene, 2018)

I’ve read a number of books published by Peirene (you can see them all in my virtual bookshelf), and I’ve enjoyed them all, but Soviet Milk was on an entirely different level for me. David Hebblethwaite has aptly described it as “a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture”, as Soviet rule is experienced through the eyes of three generations of women, two of them old enough to remember a time when “we had our own state and flag.” The story is told alternately from the points of view of the two younger women: the mother was born in 1944, just after Latvia was liberated from the Nazis, and the daughter in 1969, when Latvia was under Soviet rule. Though neither mother nor daughter is given a name, much of Soviet Milk is autobiographical: as a child, Ikstena left her grandparents’ home in Riga because her mother, a gynaecologist, clashed with Soviet bureaucracy and was sent to run a small rural clinic. Ikstena’s mother took her own life at the age of 54, shortly before the end of Soviet rule in Latvia. These difficult life experiences are recounted in Soviet Milk, and yet it is an exceptionally compassionate story of love, faith, and the ties that bind: in addition to the mother-daughter relationship, fictional female characters are woven into the narrative, always coming from the edges of society, and bringing warmth to the child’s lonely life. Margita Gailitis translates beautifully, her stark sentences containing all the pent-up rage and sorrow of the narrators without ever tipping over into melodrama or sentimentality.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Soviet Milk opens with the daughter reconstructing her birth in October 1969: her mother disappeared for five days immediately after giving birth, and came back with her milk having dried up. The original Latvian title of the novel translates as Mother’s Milk, and the importance of (non-)maternity and nurturing is key throughout. Bereft of her mother’s milk, the young girl is nurtured on Soviet narratives, and as her mother trains to be a doctor, “the smell of medicine and disinfectant replaced the smell of mother’s milk.” When the mother takes her turn to narrate, she too reconstructs her own birth in October 1944: Riga had just been liberated from the Nazis, and an epidemic of nasal typhoid fever was sweeping through the hospital, killing the newborn children. Her mother smuggled her out, and set off to Babīte in the outskirts of Riga, where they made a life for themselves in a small cottage. Yet maternal sacrifice is shown to have no effect: the grandmother recalls that “I exchanged my African fur coat for dried sugar beet. My jaw grew sore from chewing at those beets. There was nothing else. But they gave me milk to spare in my breasts. She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was a healthy, strong child. What happened to her?’” Angry and increasingly detached in the face of Soviet oppression, the mother feels no maternal love herself, and is likened to her daughter’s hamster, Bambi, whose looming presence Catherine Venner sums up as a foreshadowing of the mother’s existence and fate: “Trapped in his cage, Bambi yearns for freedom, eats his own children, and ultimately gives up on life.” The mother lives as if she were in a cage, the “Russian boot” over her head: she is monitored, forced to state that she does not believe in God and, like all those under Soviet rule, lives under censorship.

When the mother is befriended by Jesse, a big-hearted hermaphrodite who is as much of an outcast as she is, Jesse proudly brings the mother a portion of a book she has found (which, from the dialogue, it is clear is George Orwell’s 1984). The book is pivotal for both mother and daughter in different ways; the mother explains its importance to her in the following terms: “Who was this Winston who was asked about God just as I’d been asked on Engels Street before going to Leningrad? I read on. The whole dialogue sounded as if the speaker was standing right beside me, in my narrow room, as if he was describing my life right now.” If, for the mother, 1984 is a balm that makes her feel less alone, for the daughter it is an uninvited evil that has pulled her mother further away from her: “We could have had a lovely last summer together, if Jesse had not brought us that portion of book […] I hated this half-book wrapped in a calendar. It had stolen my last summer with my mother and led her even further into a fantasy world, away from life, the blooming garden and the balmy river.” Once again the daughter is left on the margins of her mother’s life: the mother can find solace in her work, and in banned books, but never in human relationships.

“to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life”

The great beauty in Ikstena’s work is in her ability to give voice to the mother as well as the child; given the autobiographical element, it must have been immensely difficult to write from the perspective of a mother unable to love her child, when you are that unloved child. The warmth and compassion with which Ikstena allows her mother to tell her story are truly remarkable. For example, on a cultural history trip, when Teacher Blūms shows the students a mute church bell with its tongue torn out, the young girl reflects later that the bell reminds her of her mother. And to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life. It is the daughter who must continually find the strength to keep her mother in the world, for the mother “always seemed to be striving to turn out her life’s light.” When the daughter can do no more for her mother, she gives her one final gift: a voice of her own to be able to say that she was trapped in “my Soviet cage, where I went on living without the courage to eat my child.” That Ikstena can not only acknowledge these painful realisations about her mother, but also connect her mother to life by giving her a voice in this beautiful novel, is extraordinary.

Ikstena’s story is moving enough in itself to have a profound effect on me, but there were also very personal reasons why it affected me so deeply. My step-grandfather was Latvian: he was conscripted into the German army at 16, could not return to Riga after the Second World War, and never saw his family again; he passed away in a small end-of-terrace house in Huddersfield in March 1989. As a child I didn’t know anything about Latvia, or find his accent odd (coming from a family whose main origins were Maltese, Arab and Greek, I grew up thinking it was normal that grandparents spoke English with different accents). As a twelve-year-old more concerned with the latest issue of Smash Hits than current affairs, I didn’t know in 1989 that the fall of the Berlin Wall had any resonance in Latvia; reading Soviet Milk almost thirty years later I wept for my Grandad, who missed the end of Soviet rule by just a few months. This personal connection is far from being the only reason I loved Soviet Milk, though. The characters demand connection and compassion by themselves: the mother who cannot find a place in a society she despises; the daughter who does not understand why she is not enough to make her mother happy; the grandmother who has seen enough atrocity and would prefer to just live and not think about sorrow. This is a truly great book: a beautiful account of Ikstena’s childhood, a stripped-bare narrative of love and loss, and a beacon for Latvian literature in translation.