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Archive for the ‘Women in Translation Month’ Category

One day Naja Marie Aidt receives a call in the evening. The person at the other end says that her son is dead. Her son is twenty five years old. This tragedy devastates Naja Marie Aidt and her family. They say that the worst misfortune that can befall a person is when they have to bury their child. It happens to Naja Marie Aidt. It plunges her into a deep abyss of grief. And while she is grieving, she takes her pain and misfortune and creates art. And we have this book. So that we can read it, and we can grieve with her. And we can grieve for those we have loved and lost forever.

I’m sharing with you some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…Aristotle’s description of how a tragedy is structured. This description comes from his work Poetics. You choose a hero, someone you can identify with. A person, like anyone in the audience, with ordinary character traits and ordinary minor flaws, but who is one hair nobler, one hair better…

The tragic element begins when the hero commits hamartia, a fatal flaw or a fatal miscalculation. This fatal miscalculation is never malevolent, but is carried out with the best intentions. An action anyone in the audience could commit if the circumstances were in place. A small, insignificant action…

But the miscalculation in the tragedy is the triggering factor for peripeteia – a reversal of fortune. A reversal of fortune is the sudden shift from lucky to unlucky. In the reversal of fortune, you get caught by your good intentions…

Aristotle believed that tragedy after a reversal of fate would inspire fear and compassion in the audience. Compassion, for those who do not deserve trouble. Fear, when someone gets into trouble who, in many ways, is like ourselves. Our equal. The impact on the audience needs to be strong and gripping. The audience has to experience catharsis – a shock-like effect that makes the audience’s hair stand on end. And here is the crux of the tragedy and this entire unfortunate situation…

After the tragedy, the audience will leave the theatre feeling humble about their own ability to avoid trouble, and will think twice about looking down on one of their fellow human beings, whose life has ended in a failed situation. I hope that everyone with us today in this room will learn from this tragedy.”

“Nick Cave says in the film, ‘One More Time With Feeling (2016)’ : Most of us don’t want to change, really. I mean, why should we? What we do want is a sort of a modification of the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but just hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from a known person to an unknown person. So then, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.”

Have you read Naja Marie Aidt’s book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Hanne Ørstavik’sLove‘ when I was looking at Archipelago Books’ catalogue last year. I got it at that that time, but never got around to reading it. Then I read Miracle’s (from ‘The Book-Butterfly) review of the book recently, and got inspired by it and decided to pick this book up. I finished reading it today in one sitting.

A single mother and her son have moved into a small town. It is the son’s birthday the next day. By an accident of circumstances, they both leave the home in the evening, and end up meeting strangers and having different adventures. You have to read the book to find out what happened next.

The story has only a few main characters. Nothing much happens in it. There is a lot unsaid which is there below the surface, waiting to burst out. Hanne Ørstavik’s offers a masterclass on the old creative writing rule – “Show, don’t tell”. Whether the author describes different kinds of love in the story, or whether she leaves the interpretations of love to our imagination – this is all up to discussion. You should read the book and ask yourself what you think about it.

My favourite character in the book was an old man who comes in the beginning. He was cool. But all the characters in the story were quite interesting. Hanne Ørstavik writing is soft and flows smoothly like the evening breeze.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

“She wants her hair to look like a cloud caressing her face.”

“She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.”

“The whisky is golden, like distilled fire.”

“I’ll sheathe us both in speechless intimacy, until we’re ready for the abruptness of words.”

“She thinks the speed at which a person reads says something about the kind of rhythm they possess, the way they are in life.”

“She feels the lure of sitting with a good book, a big thick one of the kind that leave an impression stronger and realer than life itself.”

Have you read Hanne Ørstavik’s book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Alina Bronsky’sMy Grandmother’s Braid‘ through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve wanted to read Alina Bronsky for a long time and so I decided to start with this.

Maxi lives with his grandma and grandpa. They are Russian refugees who have newly moved to Germany. Maxi’s grandma is white Russian, but his grandpa is Central Asian Russian. Maxi’s parents are not there on the scene, and we don’t know what happened to them. Maxi’s grandma is a dominant figure and runs the family like a matriarch. Maxi and his family become friends with their neighbour Nina, who is a single mom and her daughter Vera, who is Maxi’s age. Before long, Maxi discovers that his grandfather is in love with Nina, but his grandmother doesn’t seem to be aware of that.

What happens after that, does all hell break loose – you have to read the story to find out.

‘My Grandmother’s Braid’ is humorous and hilarious. When Maxi describes his conversations with his grandmother, or the events happening in their lives, it makes us laugh aloud most of the time. There are sentences like these, for example –

“She had my medical files with her, they were bound in leather and looked like the rediscovered handwritten manuscript of a lost classic.”

“Vera’s tactlessness fascinated me, and I put genuine effort into satisfying her curiosity.”

Maxi’s grandmother is a traditional matriarch who keeps making sharp comments, and if we take her seriously, we’ll not like her, but if we take a step back and keep her at arms-length and listen to her talk, we’ll find it hilarious and we can’t stop laughing. The humour is sharp and very Russian. The grandmother is a fascinating character. I loved most of the characters in the book, especially Maxi’s grandfather, who keeps quiet most of the time, but we soon discover that there is more to him than meets the eye.

There is a mention of Russian condensed milk in the book (‘sgushyonka’) which made me smile. It is something that I’ve wanted to try for many years, because everyone who has tried it,  raves about it, but it is not easily available where I live. Many years back when I visited my Russian friend, she took out a tin of sgushyonka and asked me to try some, and like an idiot, I didn’t. I’ve bitterly regretted it ever since. I hope in this life, I get to try it once.

I loved ‘My Grandmother’s Braid’. I can’t believe that I’ve waited so long to read an Alina Bronsky book. I want to read her first book ‘Broken Glass Park‘ soon. It seems to have a totally different kind of plot, and I want to find out whether it is as humorous as this one.

Have you read ‘My Grandmother’s Braid’? What do you think about it?

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We’ve all heard of ‘Hurricane Season’. Well, this is not that 😊 In these parts, it is ‘Dry Season‘ 😊 With Gabriela Babnik.

A woman in her sixties is walking through the streets of Burkina Faso. She meets a man in his twenties. Sparks fly. What happens next? She is in her sixties, he is in his twenties. She is white, he is black. Will this work? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved the central premise in the book. I haven’t read many (=any) spring–autumn romances, especially in literary fiction, especially in which the woman is older. It is common in movies and TV shows. But I haven’t seen many books featuring this. So that was wonderful. Gabriela Babnik’s prose is elegant and is a pleasure to read. I loved that. The story is narrated by the two lovers alternatively. They talk about their past and how they came to be where they were in the present. I loved those parts which delved on their past history. The parts in which they talked about their relationship and about each other – I found them hit and miss. Sometimes I loved those parts, sometimes I found them underwhelming.

One of the things I love reading in books is the description of food. There is a description of a Burkina Faso food in the book – “tô, kneaded balls of dough soaked in sesame sauce.” I want to try that 😊

Towards the end, the story has a cinematic climax, which in my opinion felt thrust in. I would have loved it when I was younger. But now, I was a little bit disappointed. But the book has won widespread acclaim and won awards. So probably, the problem is with me and not with the book.

I am glad I read ‘Dry Season’. It has many things to recommend it. It is also my first Slovenian book 😊 So, yay! My dream is to read atleast one book from every language from the Balkan region. Till now I’ve read Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian books. Only Montenegrin and Macedonian are left. Looking forward to reading them also soon.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“In fact, I don’t really know how it is with the body – when, exactly, does it start to decline, when does it surrender to that cold blast of wind, not asking, not hoping anymore, that things might change for the better? The only comfort is the here and now, which becomes the best you’ve got.”

“I swore to myself that I would learn to make sentences, not just letters and words, but long weaving sentences, and would someday write it all down in the dust, in the ground, in the earth. And when somebody looks down at my writing from above, their heart, from all the beauty of it, will cling to their inner walls and simply stand still.”

“Should I be like other elderly people who sit in remote villages and gaze into the fire and at certain rare moments think their life could have encompassed something other than simply what it is now? Or like the elderly lady who watches people’s faces through the window of a café, people too preoccupied to return her look? All my life I had lived the way other people wanted me to live, my mother, my father, my son, my ex-husband, my customers; all my life I had been the person they wanted to see. I could remember periods of my life lived through as somebody else, so now I had no need to pretend. So all those men sitting at that low table, and the woman by the window – I was able to return their gaze.”

“The desire to have a baby was, for him, a form of control, but there’s nothing new about that. It happened to generations before me and even a generation or two after me, and it undoubtedly happened to the women I was watching from under the mango tree.”

“Nowhere does evening come the way it does in the desert. The darkness comes over you so suddenly you sit in front of it motionless. It swarms a while through your entire body, then settles in your feet, and all you can do is light a paraffin lamp. The mosquitoes gather in formation around it, and you have to shoo them away with your hand.”

“The frog does not know there are two kinds of water if he never falls into the hot kind.”

Have you read ‘Dry Season’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Marina Šur Puhlovski’sWild Woman‘ in an interesting way. I was looking for more translations by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, because she had translated two of my favourite books, ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ and ‘Zlata’s Diary‘. And that is how I stumbled upon ‘Wild Woman’.

The story starts with a young woman in an apartment with her dog. The apartment is in a mess. There is no food and the woman and her dog are literally scraping the barrel. This woman tells us what happened, and how events led to this situation. She takes us back by many years, when she first went to college and met a guy on the first day, and sparks started to fly. What happened after that – you have to read the book to find out.

‘Wild Woman’ is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking book. It describes what happens when we fall in love, and things don’t go as we expect, and how sometimes we fall into a bottomless abyss from which we find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

I loved ‘Wild Woman’, though the word ‘love’ doesn’t begin to describe what I feel about it. It was powerful and moving and heartbreaking, and it pulled my heartstrings and it made me angry and it made me scream. Sometimes it felt like I was reading a contemporary version of the Ingrid Bergman movie ‘Gaslight‘.

Marina Šur Puhlovski’s prose is beautiful and I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages. She has been writing for a while, but it appears that this is her only book which has been translated into English. Wish more of her work gets translated.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“What hurts is what you don’t have. And it hurts, say the experts, because the brain won’t accept that you no longer have what you once did, what it still remembers, and so it turns its absence into the pain of loss, which keeps going back to the beginning. That’s my story, I guess. Because if it weren’t, then I wouldn’t be sitting here for three days now, incapable of extricating myself from it.”

“I stepped out like a sleepwalker, in my nightgown, barefoot, at that magical moment in the morning that belongs to the surrounding forest, when life wakes up and you are filled with this sense of awakening, as at the dawn of humankind, when the first human realised that he was alive, because he hadn’t known it before, it came to him suddenly. And it’s no different today, the wonder of life remains hidden from us during the day, and turns into fear at night, and it is only like this in the early morning that we understand it, when we are alone and when it’s spring and when the forest within us breathes, or the sea within us breathes, when we imbue each other.”

“A magical wonder is when something doesn’t look real but is, I realised as they took me around – like the way Plitvice’s waters forged their own paths through the rocks and bushes, through the grey and green, through the air and earth, creating a work of art out of nature, making it look like child’s play, untaught, becoming a work of art in itself, based on some primeval memory. It was as if we became a work of art ourselves, rather than creating one, a higher form of existence that we did not sufficiently appreciate, because it eluded us, I thought, walking with my feet in the moss and ferns and my head in the air.”

“What else is love except a kind of blindness, I reflected, you see what you want, what you like, what catches your fancy, what makes you grow, you see what you need but you don’t see what you don’t need. When you see what you don’t need you try not to see it, to attribute it to a random instance, to hide it from yourself, because you compare what you see with the ideal that they’ve drummed into your head and try to make it fit that ideal. Sometimes it more or less works, unless you completely fail, because basically you always fail, but even an approximation is something, at least it’s bearable. The world exists on the basis of approximation. But it’s awful when it turns out that what you get is not even close, that it’s the exact opposite, that you had imagined somebody else! And, of course, he helped you along, he tried to be what he thought you wanted him to be, not what he was, but he could pretend to be what you wanted until he captured you, until he took away your freedom, in life and, worst of all, within your inner self, because the hardest thing was to save yourself from yourself. By saving him I was saving myself from myself, I realised, from the debt of love, I supposed, a debt you couldn’t just discard as if it never existed, it doesn’t exist now but it did, it was your life and if it is worthless then so are you and your life; how do you live with that?”

“…gazing at the early autumn greenery that has only just started to turn yellow and red and to decay, a moment with no continuation, but all the same a moment that existed, that fell into place with everything else that existed, the unreal attaching itself to the real which, once it passes, itself seems unreal, and passes in a heartbeat, as if it had never existed, but you know that it did, and so a vicious circle.”

You can find Marina’s (from ‘Finding Time to Write’) beautiful review of the book here.

Have you read ‘Wild Woman’? What do you think about it?

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I have read three books by Jelena Lengold before and loved them all and so I was excited to read this one, ‘Giving Up‘ (‘Odustajanje‘ in Serbian).

The story is told by a young girl in the first part of the book. In that part our narrator describes her childhood and the experiences and adventures she has. Her relationship with her brother, who is much older than her, and who is her frequent companion in her adventures, is beautifully described. It is a beautiful evocation of childhood, almost golden like the Garden of Eden. It made me think of Marlen Haushofer’s depiction of childhood in ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’ and Danilo Kiš’ depiction of childhood in ‘Garden, Ashes’. Then something goes wrong and the story turns dark and it depicts the narrator’s loss of innocence, as happens in the best coming-of-age stories.

In the second part, our narrator is a young woman, and she is living in another city, and she describes her life and loves. The past, of course, doesn’t leave her alone and tries to catch up with her. As our narrator says,

“Sometimes you leave something behind and hope that item of the past will never resurface. That no mud will wash her ashore. You can pretend to the world and to yourself that it no longer exists, just as an amputated leg does not exist. Where once there was a part of your life, there is now an empty space. You should not even try to fill it with anything, because that is impossible. Just don’t lift the lid, never, not for a living. And I stuck to that, years ago. But the amputated leg found its way by itself, happened and fell in front of me. And now what?”

In the third part, our narrator is an older married woman with a grown-up daughter, and we see how life has turned out for her, and how her childhood past keeps impacting her life even after so many years.

One thing I didn’t realize while reading the book, but only noticed after I finished it was that most of the characters don’t have names. The narrator doesn’t have a name, neither does her brother or her parents or her husband. I remember only three names from the story – the narrator’s boyfriend has a name and so does her daughter and her boyfriend. It is fascinating, because I didn’t notice this while reading, and it didn’t impact the flow of the story.

Jelena Lengold’s prose is beautiful and is pleasurable to read. I highlighted so many favourite passages. Jelena Lengold first pages are always spectacular, and this book is no exception. She is also famous for her cat passages and cat stories, and this book also has a beautiful one.

The ending of the story is moving and poignant and surreal, but I won’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book to find out.

I loved ‘Giving Up’. It is a beautiful evocation of childhood, and it is also about how the past and family secrets keep haunting us for the rest of our lives.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

This is from the first pages of the novel. It is long and so I am giving only a little part here.

“Nothing really prepares you for how quickly life goes by. Rush through your days, convinced for a very long time that something important is yet to come. And that the burden you carry with you will disappear, somewhere along the way. That it will melt, the way the muddy deposits of snow on the pavement melt, as soon as the first March sun arrives. That you will forget and leave behind that heavy cloud that has been overwhelming you with fatigue for decades. That the noises that fill the room as soon as it gets dark and rush at you in the meaninglessness of your apartment, which is supposed to be a reflection of you, will be lost. But there are only notes and scribbles around you, they follow you through life like loyal beings and do not help at all. The cup of tea stays where you left it. The pile of mail keeps getting bigger and all you can do is dread how it will one day come crashing down on you. You live in an apartment that is so dumb and dead that it makes you a little crazy…”

Jelena Lengold is famous for her cat stories, and this is the beautiful story featured in this book.

“The cat was anxiously walking around the yard because we were disturbing her perfect July tranquility in every way and threatening to rob her basement hiding places. She went reproachfully from one to the other, wrapping herself around our legs, which, translated from her language, was a polite but firm request for us to calm down and stop making noise around the yard. What was wrong with yesterday, said the cat, when you all just lay in cloth chairs and read the newspapers? But no one paid any attention to the cat’s remarks, so in the end, with a little angry snort, she went and sat under the thuja tree, in the shade, to watch from a distance the continuation of our unreasonable behavior. Even then, I knew that cats are, in a sense, much wiser than people. They know exactly when some things no longer depend on them, they withdraw, they give up trying to educate the world. But people don’t. People always think that they can influence what bothers them, that it is their duty to do so as long as there is an iota of strength in them. They are not able, like cats, to hide in the shade and wait for the world to do something of its own.”

This passage about fear was another of my favourites.

“Sometimes he would ask me if I wasn’t afraid to walk alone in the city at night. Fear, I guess, was supposed to be a natural state of the world. Fear of loneliness, hunger, robbers, fear of appearing ridiculous and pathetic in front of those we care about, as well as in front of those we don’t care about, because we still want them to think the best of us. Fear of elevators breaking loose and plunging us into the abyss. Fear of our own impotence. I didn’t admit to any of that. And I didn’t care. As I walked through the night, at the same time and in the same place, the night walked through me. I couldn’t possibly explain it to Komar or anyone else, nor did I want to. The night had reason to fear me.”

I once quit my job, took a year off, refused to pick the phone when it rang, and read for the whole day. This passage is how I felt. This is one of the reasons I love reading. We think our experiences are unique, and no one will be able to understand us even if we explain it to them, and them we read a book, and there is a passage in it which exactly explains our feelings and what we went through. It is amazing, beautiful, surreal.

“A man who becomes a true loner is usually not even aware that he has become so. He doesn’t hate other people, he just doesn’t need them. He prefers to hide in a shady part of the street, avoid crowds and passers-by. Sometimes he does not answer the phone for days because he is enveloped in silence. He prefers to spend the pale winter afternoons lying down, until barely noticeable movements betray him at night. He tells himself that one of these days he will call someone, go somewhere, and sometimes he actually does, but the whole time he’s there, he’s actually waiting to be alone again. A true loner is just as selfish as most other people, except that unlike others, he admits it to the morning mist that he has no need to share with anyone.”

Have you read ‘Giving Up’ or other books by Jelena Lengold? What do you think about them?

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Tea Tulić is a Croatian writer and ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is her first book.

The narrator of ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is a young girl. The book has short chapters which are mostly just a paragraph long, in which the narrator describes her everyday life, her mother, her grandmother, her father, her sister, her neighbours, her pets, and shares her thoughts on things that she finds interesting. One day her mother is unwell and is admitted at the hospital. She stays there for a while. It turns out that her mother has cancer. While her mother’s health declines, we see how our narrator’s life changes and how she reacts to it through her writing.

Hair Everywhere‘ is a beautiful, poignant book. We see the unfolding tragedy through a young girl’s voice, which is beautiful, charming, unique, honest and candid, like only a young person’s voice can be. The title comes from this passage, in which the narrator describes her mother after the situation has worsened.

“Hair is everywhere. On the pillow. On the floor. In her hands and mine. We talk about coloured Indian scarves. About thick soup. Bad weather. Discipline. We talk about dry skin. We talk about everything, but still we feel sad because of the hair. It is a symbol of the greedy animal in her head. Her skin is flaking off her too. When she changes her vest, tiny flakes waft through the air.”

It is heartbreaking to read.

I loved ‘Hair Everywhere‘. It gives literary shape to a nightmare that every child has about their mother. It also shows how in the middle of big personal tragedies, everyday life just keeps flowing along. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to read. ‘Hair Everywhere’ won wide praise and literary awards when it was first published in Croatian ten years back.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The next snapshot shows an aeroplane dropping bombs that are falling somewhere down below, into a thick forest. In the picture you can’t see that the forest hides squirrels, owls, foxes, people and our vision. When the bomb reaches the ground, it won’t matter whether the man down there was a good teacher. Or that he exchanged his coat for a sack of potatoes. Or that the slaughter of the squirrels caused God-knows what disruption in Nature. The green trees survived.”

“In the big market place, stuffed with people and different kinds of yoghurts, I buy cheese. Only people, of all the mammals in the world, consume milk and milk products after they grow up. And all those people are here, in the queue in front of me…”

“My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”

“Once in the newspaper it said that three Japanese fishermen had been fishing in the middle of the ocean and that a cow fell from the sky and killed them. The cow had been dropped from a plane flying directly above them. And two more the same way! They were too heavy for the plane to fly properly. The unfortunate Japanese drowned, and the bizarre ugly fish continued to circle around, down there in the darkness.”

Have you read ‘Hair Everywhere‘? What do you think about it?

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I loved John Cox’s translation of Biljana Jovanović’s book, especially his introductory essay on Yugoslavian / Serbian literature and on Jovanović’s work. So I did some research on which other books he has translated and that is how I discovered Ajla Terzić’sThis Could Have Been a Simple Story’. Ajla Terzić is a Bosnian writer and this book was originally published in Bosnian.

Esma works in an organization which helps people. She is single. She doesn’t have any near family – her dad moved away when she was young, and her mom has passed. She has an aunt and uncle and cousins and they invite her home during festival times. Once her office sends her to Vienna for a seminar. She meets a woman in the train compartment and sparks fly. But later the woman disappears. After a couple of days, this woman, called Roza, calls up Esma and they meet again. The sparks become a fire. And that is the end of life, as Esma knows it. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘ is a beautiful lesbian love story. The first meeting, the attraction, the love, and the relationship between Esma and Roza is beautifully depicted. The kind of resistance that these two have to put up, and the battles they have to fight, especially when facing opposition from their friends, family members and loved ones, has been portrayed in the story in a nuanced way. In the last chapter of the book, Esma is at the edge of the precipice (a metaphorical precipice, of course), and we can feel the author Ajla Terzić literally pause her pen over paper, and contemplate on what to do next, and we readers realize that the fate of our heroine Esma, and our own happiness lies in the author’s hands, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. Does Esma take the risk and jump off the precipice and take the plunge? Or does she step back to the safety of her previous life before all this happened? You have to read the story to find out.

It was nice to discover a new Bosnian author in Ajla Terzić. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the story, in which the translator John Cox introduces us to Bosnian literature and Ajla Terzić’s work. It is vintage John Cox. John Cox is odd among translators, because he is a Balkan historian. So his knowledge of Balkan and Bosnian history, culture, literature and language is deep and that is clearly visible in the introductory essay and in the footnotes throughout the book.

John Cox says this in his introduction – “She (Ajla Terzić) herself sees no need to stress this, but you are about to read the first novel by a Bosnian woman that has appeared in English translation.” If this is true, then this book breaks new ground and this translation is pioneering. And the fact that the first book by a Bosnian woman to be translated into English is a lesbian love story – that makes it even better.

One of the central things in the book is the way music is embedded throughout the story. This would be easily perceptible to a Bosnian reader, but to an outsider like myself, it would be impossible to see. For this reason, the introduction is invaluable. The main character Esma’s name, the title of the book, and the titles of all the chapters are taken from the songs of the famous Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme, and John Cox explains the connection between the band and the author and the book. One of my favourite musical discoveries from the book was a Bosnian music form called Sevdalinka, which expresses unrequited longing through music. I went and listened to a recording of it. It was beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking. (Do search for ‘U Stambolu na Bosforu’ by Daphne Kritharas, in YouTube, if you’d like to listen.)

I enjoyed reading ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘. I can’t wait to read more books by Ajla Terzić.

Have you read ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Zlata’s Diary‘ by Zlata Filipović recently and read it today.

Zlata is a eleven year old girl living in Sarajevo. It is the year 1991. It is a normal year. Zlata goes to school, plays with friends, celebrates birthdays, plays the piano, catches up with her grandparents who live nearby, goes on holiday trips with her family. She writes about all this in her diary. Then one day news arrives that there is war in a nearby town. And after that rumours spread. Then one day the rumours arrive that Sarajevo is going to be shelled on a particular day. People who believe in the rumours start leaving the city. Smart people, wise people like Zlata’s parents, are sad that people are believing in rumours and misinformation. Sarajevo is a peaceful city and they believe that things will continue to be peaceful there. Unfortunately, the rumour-believers turn out to be right. The shelling happens and all hell breaks loose. Zlata continues recording all these happenings in her diary, which she calls Mimmy. So everyday, she has a conversation with Mimmy. For nearly two years, we get a firsthand account of what happened in Sarajevo during those terrible, war-torn years, as we see the daily happenings, the small happy ones and the big sad ones through the eyes of a eleven year old (and later twelve year old and thirteen year old). Our heart goes out to Zlata, as she wonders why there is a meaningless war going on, and why grownups who are supposed to be making rational decisions and doing better, keep the fires of war and hate burning.

Zlata’s Diary‘ takes us into the everyday life of a Bosnian family, and then before we know it, we are transported into a war-torn zone, which is scary as we can almost hear the shells exploding in the front of our streets, and the fear and dread creeping into our hearts. It is a powerful book. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading it – it was scary and heartbreaking – but I am glad I read it.

I am sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below.

From the entry on Thursday, 19 November 1992

“I keep wanting to explain these stupid politics to myself, because it seems to me that politics caused this war, making it our everyday reality. War has crossed out the day and replaced it with horror, and now horrors are unfolding instead of days. It looks to me as though these politics mean Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people. They are all the same. They all look like people, there’s no difference. They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s ‘something’ that wants to make them different. Among my girlfriends, among our friends, in our family, there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims. It’s a mixed group and I never knew who was a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim. Now politics has started meddling around. It has put an ‘S’ on Serbs, an ‘M’ on Muslims and a ‘C’ on Croats, it wants to separate them. And to do so it has chosen the worst, blackest pencil of all – the pencil of war which spells only misery and death. Why is politics making us unhappy, separating us, when we ourselves know who is good and who isn’t? We mix with the good, not with the bad. And among the good there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims, just as there are among the bad. I simply don’t understand it. Of course, I’m ‘young’, and politics are conducted by ‘grown-ups’. But I think we ‘young’ would do it better. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen war. The ‘kids’ really are playing, which is why us kids are not playing, we are living in fear, we are suffering, we are not enjoying the sun and flowers, we are not enjoying our childhood. WE ARE CRYING.”

From the entry on Monday, 15 March 1993

“And spring is around the corner. The second spring of the war. I know from the calendar, but I don’t see it. I can’t see it because I can’t feel it…There are no trees to blossom and no birds, because the war has destroyed them as well. There is no sound of birds twittering in springtime. There aren’t even any pigeons – the symbol of Sarajevo. No noisy children, no games. Even the children no longer seem like children. They’ve had their childhood taken away from them, and without that they can’t be children. It’s as if Sarajevo is slowly dying, disappearing. Life is disappearing. So how can I feel spring, when spring is something that awakens life, and here there is no life, here everything seems to have died.”

I read this for Women in Translation Month which is celebrated during the whole of August.

Have you read ‘Zlata’s Diary‘? What do you think about it?

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Lakshmi’s was one of my mom’s favourite Tamil writers. Many women from my mom’s generation grew up reading Lakshmi’s books. Though my mom loved other writers too, there was a kind of veneration, a reverence that my mom and other women from her generation felt for Lakshmi. There was a reason for that. Lakshmi wrote books which had strong women characters who were inspiring. She singlehandedly increased the female readership in Tamil by many times through her stories which were published to much acclaim. She did it in the late 1930s / early 1940s, when a woman Tamil author was rare or unheard of. In addition to all this, she was a doctor. She started writing stories during her student days in medical school and continued till the end. My mom had told me about this memoir of hers, many times, and I had wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Before I read the memoir I thought that Lakshmi was from a privileged family and that is how she could go to medical school, and after finishing college, she got married and became a homemaker and she started writing as a hobby and became successful. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong, of course. There was a reason I thought that, because I have seen many highly educated, talented Indian women – doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, PhDs – do this. But still, I was an idiot to believe in those assumptions. Lakshmi shows in her memoir why.

Lakshmi’s memoir has two parts. The first part starts from 1921, when she was born, and continues till the time she finishes high school and pre-college and enters medical school. The second part covers her years through medical school and ends a little after that, sometime after the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the first part Lakshmi talks about how she grew up in her grandparents’ home and how her grandparents brought her up during her childhood, because her dad was away studying. This part of the book depicts a beautiful, fascinating picture of the India of that time, an India which was conservative, kind and casteist, an India which was filled with patriarchy, misogyny, colourism and love at the same time. It is the kind of world which defies modern simplistic descriptions and definitions. To share an example from the book, when Lakshmi’s father wants to send her to school, her grandmothers and aunts vehemently oppose it, saying that a girl doesn’t need an education. Lakshmi’s father defies them and sends her to school. That is, the women oppose the girl’s education, while the man encourages it. When Lakshmi finishes elementary school and has to go to middle school, there is only a middle school for boys nearby, and that school has never had a girl student and so refuses to take her in. Lakshmi’s father fights for her cause, and somehow gets her into that school. This battle for education continues till pre-college, and Lakshmi’s father fights every step of the way for her. Then Lakshmi gets into med school, which is a huge accomplishment for a woman from her generation. But after that, her father flip flops. One day he is encouraging, another day he asks her to wind up things and come back home and take care of the family. Lakshmi’s life is very uncertain during this period, as she doesn’t know whether her education will continue or end suddenly. Her father, from the supporting champion he was, turns into the opposite and tries to undermine her.

Through the course of the two volumes, Lakshmi tells us about her family members, friends, teachers, inspiring people she met, strangers who were kind to her. She tells us things, as they are, in a non-judgemental way, but in a gentle, loving tone. She describes how she became a writer – because she wanted to support herself when she was a med school student, as her dad couldn’t afford to pay the fees – and how writing stories and connecting with people through them has enriched her life. She also describes the Madras of her time, and it looks very beautiful and glamorous, filled with cool people that we would like to meet, very unlike the Madras of today’s time. It almost feels like the film ‘Midnight in Paris’. She also talks about the Independence movement and how things were during the Second World War.

The book ends with Lakshmi graduating from med school. She was a successful writer and a doctor for more than forty years after that, but that is not covered in the book. The end of the second volume seems to imply a third volume, but unfortunately that was not to be. I wish we had atleast one or two volumes after this which described her literary career, her years in South Africa, how she got married (her two younger sisters got married before she did, which is rare in India even today, but almost unheard of during her time), her experiences with the movie industry when her story was adapted into a movie. Unfortunately, that is not to be, and this is all there is. I feel sad.

I loved Lakshmi’s ‘A Writer’s Story‘. It gave me goosebumps, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I wish my mom was still around so that I could discuss it with her. It belongs up there with the memoirs of R.K.Narayan and Kamala Das, among Indian memoirs. I wish it gets translated into English. It deserves more readers.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation’ Month.

Have you read ‘A Writer’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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