February 8

Write about what you know…

dietIn her first novel for young adults, Tamar Chnorhokian does exactly that; the Diet Starts Monday is set in Western Sydney and involves the mix of cultures you might expect to find there.

Zara (or Zaruhi, as her Armenian family wants to call her) is a typical western Sydney teenager, except for the fact that she is a size 22 girl with a crush on the hottest guy at school. Because of this, she decides yet again, to go on a diet – but with renewed determination this time, as the Year 12 Farewell looms at the end of the year.

Privy to Zara’s thoughts and anxieties, we can identify with her body image angst, and empathise with the things that trigger her poor eating habits. There are also little hints about what her friends think of her dieting efforts, and her fixation on Pablo Fernandez (after all he already has skinny girlfriend, and, what about his gross habits?).

There are times when you want to shake Zara back to her senses, and make her realise that as she loses weight, she is also losing the respect of her long term friends, Carmelina, Ramsi and Max because of how she is now behaving. I know I was also waiting for her new ‘friends’, Pamela and Holly, to turn around and trip her up on her self-discovery journey. And how was she now treating her own family?

The voices and characters in TDSOM are quite authentic, and the places they go are also real. As a member of Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement, this is precisely what Tamar aims to do – to be real and provide an authentic reflection of the community she knows:

SWEATSHOP believes the best way for Western Sydney communities to identify issues that affect them, take control of how they are portrayed and perceived and build alternatives is through literacy.

(Tamar) was one of the original members of The Sweatshop Collective and has been collaborating with Michael Mohammed Ahmad since 2006. Tamar identifies strongly with her Western Sydney community and her Armenian background. [Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement]

In an article in the SMH just before her book launch, it is clear how close to Tamar’s heart Western Sydney is:

I wanted to write a positive representation, because there are only negative representations in the media. Where I live, there are wonderful things that happen there, that is the thing I wanted to talk about.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/my-secret-sydney-tamar-chnorhokian-20141126-11to2k.html#ixzz3NpAX7qmw

Readers should easily be drawn in to The Diet Starts Monday (we all know that phrase) and will be keen to find out what happens over the HSC year for Zara and her friends. Writers will be impressed with the example set by Tamar as she sets our her commitment and contribution to Western Sydney literacy and literature development in this novel.

What might you change in TDSM to reflect the area you live in and the personalities you know in your school and community?

February 11

Icy differences – Burial Rites

burial-rites‘Burial Rites’ is an amazing achievement for debutant novelist, Hannah Kent. It is based on historical fact, but seeks to present the story of an historic victim, Agnes Magnusdottir – the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Much of the origins of or inspiration for the manuscript derive from Kent’s time in Iceland as an exchange student. Her experience of the country in her time away from Australia have clearly impacted  her interests in Icelandic history and culture. Her skill as a writer brings to the reader an awareness of the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside where the chilling events of murder and mystery take place – it is a very visceral experience.

‘Burial Rites’ raises many different questions along the way, though we need to be mindful of the times and places it reflects. Kent is sympathetic to Agnes in a time of poor respect for impoverished females. Agnes Magnsudottir was clearly a victim of her time and gender. And, as a convicted murdress, she paid the ultimate price for love.

When Agnes is ‘assigned’ to a modest farming family for detention for the days prior to her execution, there is understandable conflict. Her choice of an assistant priest to guide her last days adds to the confusion of this assignment – a curious tension. Include among this the judgemental village mentality, along with attitudes of those in power, and there is little hope for redemption for Agnes. Still, her story must be told.

Many questions are raised along the way. What were the events which lead up to the murder of Natan Ketilsson? How did it come about that Agnes was in his household at the time? Was Agnes indeed guilty, or merely a victim of time and place? And how many others might have acted in a similar way given the same circumstances?

As mentioned in a previous post, I ‘read’ Burial Rites through 2 different mediums – as an audiobook and a paperback – and valued each highly.

To be introduced to ‘Burial Rites’ through an Audible.com edition gave me a wonderful grasp of culture and voice – which I would have missed if I had only just picked up the physical book (read here: pronunciation and authentic accent). There was also a greater impact to have all the introductory notes read out to me (since I usually just scan these hurriedly) ; though I didn’t realise this till later on – these are important to both cultural understanding and significant endings of the tale.

Another advantage of the audio edition was that the names of people and places were clear. When it came time for me to read the physical edition, (as I became impatient to read more and quickly…), at least I knew how names were to be pronounced! I could also sense the differing voices of the characters which occurred as changes from one personal view to another occurred. This was particularly strong when Agnes spoke in the tale.

In the video below Hannah Kent talks about her first introduction Agnes Magnusdottir, and to the area where the last execution in Iceland occurred – and how her inspiration and interpretation of the historic fact developed into ‘Burial Rites’ – as an author ‘drawn to absences and gaps’:

Clearly, I love historical fiction and its potential to place a different or alternative spin on the past. What do you think?

October 8

Memoirs – Unpolished Gem

untitledOne of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.

The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.

Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.

As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.

Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.

Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.

Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.

In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:

A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!

July 23

Chopsticks and Roof Beams

chopsticks‘…she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roof-beam.’ I was struck by this way of referring to girls and boys. I had never heard it before, but it seemed to epitomise the manner in which the Chinese view the differences between men and women…

And so begins an explanation of why the narrator and her five sisters were only ever given a number as a name, and why their family faced much disgrace in countryside China – and why Three takes the opportunity as a young girl, to go to the city of Nanjing to find work when her uncle offers.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is an interesting and unusual story which shows many contrasts between:
1. values placed on girls and boys
2. attitudes in city and rural areas of China
3. old and new ways

Xinran was born in China, but separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, and so grew up with her grandparents in Beijing. In China, after the Cultural Revlotion ended, she became a radio broadcaster whose program, “Words on the Night Breeze”, encouraged lots of discussion about true picture of the daily lives of Chinese women. Her high media profile ultimately lead her to leave China for England in 1997, where she began to carve out her current career in journalism and writing.

With this background, you can understand that her stories, including Miss Chopsticks, are well-informed and genuine  reflections of China as she knew it , and China as she hopes it is becoming today. Her girls, Three, Five and Six, are not tragic figures in ‘Miss Chopsticks’ but rather succeed in overcoming their birth consequences. They represent a new generation of Chinese girls. Unlike many other Asian tales, it is a more lighthearted. While it portrays some harsh values which still exist in parts of China, it does offer hope.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is loosely based on many of the girls and women that Xinran has met –

“For a long time I have wanted to write down some of the stories of the girls I have met…”

Xinran gives an interesting insight to Chinese life and values. There is much to be learned from this tale. It would also be interesting to know how it might have been received in China…

For more detail about Xinran, there are many articles you can read from the Guardian.

May 21

Another world – ‘Mountain Wolf’ by Rosanne Hawke

‘Abdur-Razaq Nadeem felt the rumble in the earth, like a truck rushing underground.’ So begins the events which turn Razaq’s life upside down – an earthquake which wipes out much of his mountain village, including his family.

Set initially in a mountain village in Pakistan, Rosanne Hawke’s book , ‘Mountain Wolf’, reveals the precarious situations of many children following a natural disaster. The loss of his immediate family in the earthquake leaves 14 year old Razaq in the doubtful care of a lonely neighbour, Mrs Daud, who is experiencing her own shock and losses. In her disoriented state, she claims him as her son, then misguidely hands Razaq over to a stranger, who promises to help him find his uncle – in exchange for a paltry sum of money.

Thus, begins a tragic journey of  trading, as Razaq is taken to the city and sold into slavery. At first, he is a virtual slave to a restaurant owner; then from there he is exposed to an even more seedy side of life of child abuse and prostitution. His only hope remains in finding his uncle, who in a parallel story begins a relentless search for Razaq.

Rosanne Hawke writes from the heart. With the experience of participating in aidwork in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, her stories are informed and real. The reader can truly imagine the places she describes, and empathise with each of the young, abused children. And the children she portrays are also real. Razaq’s growing understanding of his situation reflects the innocence of many real children who are caught in child slavery; thus, the story opens our eyes to the tragic situation of many children caught in the web of the child trafficking in many places around the world.

In ‘Mountain Wolf’, Rosanne Hawke also successfully blends differing points of view, with muslim Razaq being exposed to the Christian beliefs of Tahira, a girl similarly entrapped and abused. Together, they give each other hope in the most desperate of times, and their friendship is a tiny glimmer of happiness which keeps them going. Their friendship is also Razaq’s Achilles heel, as his captor knows he can control Razaq via Tahira. Meanwhile, the strength of family ties is clear as Uncle Javaid continues to search for Razaq.

‘Mountain Wolf’ is a challenging story, since it exposes a subject matter many would rather not know about. It’s probably a bit uncomfortable and a little too descriptive for younger readers, but the confronting tale tells an important story for a mature reader. (The author acknowledged this at its launch at the 2012 CBCA conference in Adelaide.)  Graciously, Rosanne has donated proceeds from the book to help children whose lives have been traded, and there is a list of resources used by the author that readers might like to follow up. (#I was unable to find out more detail…)

Other books by Rosanne Hawke, such as ‘Marrying Ameera’, are also commended for their gritty realism and the strong determination of her characters. For an understanding about how her writing and her life interests see: http://www.rosannehawke.com/

February 20

Perspectives – ‘Shooting Kabul’

There’s a lot to be learnt from putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Immersed in a book, you can experience many different situations, and, depending on how it’s told, you can learn lots about different cultures, lifestyles and perspectives – and ‘Shooting Kabul’ is such a story.

Fadi’s family lived in America while his father, Habib, completed his PhD in Agriculture. Returning to Afghanistan, Habib’s dreams of improving things for his country’s farmers failed, as the Taliban imposed harsh rules and restrictions. Under threats from this ruling regime, the family finally takes action to flee from an increasingly difficult situation, before their life is torn apart.

The struggles they face include losing track of Fadi’s younger sister during their escape; an event which haunts him continually. Family support in America eases the transition into his new life; but as a refugee, there are issues for Fadi, which are heightened when the events of 9/11 unfold.

‘Shooting Kabul’ is told in an easy fashion, though the story is not easy to contemplate. Since it is based on the author’s husband’s  own experience of fleeing Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in 1979, there is a lot the reader can take from the story about what life is like for many refugee families.

Throughout the story, Fadi remains guilt-laden for not adequately looking after his younger sister. Thankfully, there are supportive and understanding people in his new life – when he decides to share his burden. His display of determination and youthful hope tug at your heart strings, as he endeavours to make plans to return to search for his lost sister. How his plans unfold, and what he learns of himself and others, fill out the pages with an interesting insight of hope, love and perserverance.

A realistic introduction for yrs 6-9 to the immigrant experience and refugee life.

Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT
October 14

the Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

the-inheritance-of-loss1As mentioned in an earlier post, I have been ‘reading’ (via a CDs-and-book combination) ‘the Inheritance of Loss’ – a book by Kiran Desai which won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. I had picked it up in my search for books reflecting issues of globalisation.

Set mainly in the foothills of the Himalayas, it tells the stories of several characters interwoven by family and work relationships, amid the legacies of post-colonial India, and the local struggles for political independence. Position, power and politics all play a part in this tale – with some predictable outcomes – and a perspective into cultures quite different from my own.

Since finishing (and enjoying) this book, I have searched to see how others had reviewed and found a mix of praise and criticism for the prize winner. Some reviews were quite effusive in their compliments, while others decried Desai as using too many stereotypes and betraying the culture of many Indian people groups.

Comments used in reviews include:

  • a series of parallel stories… each quixotic
  • ‘literature of tourism’ – a fascinating introduction to a particular time and place
  • overwhelmed by detail
  • gripping stories of people buffeted by the winds of history, personal and political
  • the book gets under your skin
  • a bleak view of the clash of the ‘first world’ with the ‘third world’

(Most of these comments from: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95186.The_Inheritance_of_Loss)

It’s interesting to see the polarisation of reviews which often occurs with awarded books. These also made me wonder how the book might be received differently based on your ethnic background – would people who lived in, or knew the ethnic cultures, be accepting as I was of the way characters were portrayed and acted in the tale? Is that where the acceptance or rejection of the novel diverges greatly? Perhaps based on our own cultural baggage?

‘Reading’ using an audio production may have had an input to my enjoyment of the novel, read as it was by experienced narrator, Sam Dastor. This gave accents and voice to the characters which my personal reading-from-the-page may have missed. It certainly gave me things to laugh at in the car, as humour was interwoven with the daily struggles of Sai, Biju, Noni and Lola, and the Judge. And the language Desai uses is, at times playful, at other times precise, reflective and colourful. Perhaps that is why I also felt the need to purchase a physical copy of the book – and to see the shape of her words, and to see the names of the people and places in the tale.

I recommend picking up either copy (audio or book), or, as I did, try both! As usual comments and feedback welcome!