WorldBookProject – Notes from small islands

Here are my latest additions to my project to read a book from each country and dependent territory. I’ve read stories from and about several small islands or groups of islands. And it was a mixture of exciting and depressing.

115 British Indian Ocean Territory: David Vine – Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia 

Definitely on the depressing side. When you see what has been done to the Chagossian people by British and US governments and how, after 40-odd years they’re still fighting for justice, it makes me also angry. Having said that, I highly recommend the book to everyone who is interested in human rights or the Empire USA.

116 Montserrat: E.A. Markham – Against the Graine: A 1956 Memoir

This one was more exciting, but then the author also spoke about the racism he and his family experienced in the UK – just awful. What I liked most about the book was its diversity. The author cherry-picked episodes from his life and his favourite plays and created a fascinating web where you’d learn about a volcano in the Caribbean and obscure German poets within one paragraph.

117 El Salvador: Manlio Argueta – One Day of Life

This book is a gem from Latin America, and it made me cry.

118 Wallis and Futuna: Elise Huffer and Petelo Leleivai (ed.) – Futuna: Mo Ona Puleaga Sau

Now, this book is rather eccentric. Written by people from Futuna, it was more a collection of anthropological essays interspersed with mythology than the story book I had expected. It’s a bilingual edition in English and French. Thus I can learn about those islands of the French overseas territory, and some French too.

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Family Matters

First of all, thanks a lot to my student Anna who went book-shopping for me and my project to read a book from each country/territory during her holiday in Spain and Gibraltar. Splendid choice!

Family has been a major topic in many of the books I’ve read so far, and it is what all three books in this post also have in common. All of them also explore aspects of what family means in the context of a bigger community, like a village or a state, and ideas of rights and duties towards those entities. Last, but certainly not least, all three works made for gripping reads.

73 Gibraltar: Sam Benady & Mary Chiappe – Death in Paradise Ramp: Bresciano and the Unburied Angel

While this book can be read as an exciting whodunit, I loved to learn about the history of Gibraltar in the early 19th century. The idea of our Lady of Europa has lived on …96%. The characters were totally believable. I particularly liked the dilemma of truth versus loyalty and how this caused the characters to act. This book is also part 6 in a series, so now I’d really like to read all the other parts.

74 Libya: Hisham Matar – The Return: a father’s disappearance, a journey home

This was my audiobook of the month, and it was read by the author, which added an extra layer of sadness. While listening to his accounts of not wanting to give up hope and just wanting to know about the fate of his father, I kept wondering where he’d found the strength to write and to retell his heart-wrenching autobiography. How can one not despair of mankind?

75 Western Samoa: Sia Figiel – where we once belonged

The stories which comprise this book are written in a rather idiosyncratic voice using plenty of Samoan vocabulary and quite a lot of repetition … repetition. This took some getting used to, but gave the book a lot of flair. Growing up is tricky in every part of the world, but in this close-knit island community it really can’t be easy. The book is also very open in its dealing with psychological terror and physical and sexual violence which I found hard to stomach. Still, learning about some aspects of Samoan culture (which reminded me of the book I’d read for American Samoa) was fascinating.

Austria, Sudan & Tibet – Suffering

70 Austria: Ingeborg Bachmann – Malina

What a weird book this was, yet also weirdly gripping. If you’re the kind of reader who likes books without an obvious story, this one is perfect for you. Cryptic descriptions of places, people and events left me rather flummoxed. But then, I enjoyed reading a book in German, and the snippets of Hungarian were translated by my colleague Laura.

71 Sudan: Tayeb Salih – Seasons of Migration to the North

A modern Arabic classic, and still off and on the banned-books list in some places. I found the interactions between the characters dramatic, and was intrigued how this mirrored the relationship between colonial power and colony. On top of that, it was shocking to read about the fate of the young widow. It is disturbing to think the author had some real-life model there, but unfortunately highly likely (looking at the news).

72 Tibet: Palden Gyatso – Fire under the Snow: Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner

Another harrowing look into the human abyss. I had just finished reading this book when I went to a lecture about secular ethics by the 14th Dalai Lama. It was in stark contrast to how my students in China used to see him and Tibetans in general (also Uighurs) as monsters. Gyatso’s testimony, which he also told the UN, is written in an almost clinical style, e.g. when he talks about being tortured. Yet the reader can feel how his heart bled because of so much suffering of people, but also of the land.