ISRAEL: The Nimrod Flip-Out by Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is an award-winning Israeli author, who writes short, sharp, sometimes rude black comedy. He’s also a screenwriter, and both his written work and his films and TV focus on the absurdity of everyday life in Israel.

The Nimrod Flip-Out is a collection of short stories (some very short) that really hit at friendships, love, and isolation. The titular short story is a gem – a group of friends realize they’re taking turns going mad, until one “leaves” by going off to get married, messing up the cycle of madness. There’s more metaphorical stories, like “Pride and Joy”, of a son worried that his success is causing his doting parents to physically shrink, or the heavy, like “Surprise Egg”, a doctor struggling with an ethical dilemma over the autopsy findings of a suicide bomb victim.

Keret’s work feels a lot like an Israeli Vonnegut, and his work is unpretentious, funny, and shocking all at once.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Tempête sur Bangui by Didier Kassaï

Didier Kassaï’s Tempête sur Bangui (Storm over Bangui) is a shocking graphic novel on several levels. It’s an autobiography of his experiences of the 2013 civil war in the Central African Republic, as Séléka rebels overran the capital and toppled the government. Kassaï recounts the chaos, the violence, and the confusion on the ground through the eyes of Bangui’s residents. It truly is a graphic novel.

However, what is particularly shocking is how Kassaï draws Africans. While non-black characters are drawn in a realistic style, all the black characters – including Kassaï himself – are drawn like old “sambo” racial stereotypes.

Kassaï explains his artistic choice as a stylistic one, and connects it to the deeper ligne-claire cartoon tradition from France and Belgium. (He draws Africans in a realistic way in his other works).

“I believed this war had no face. I couldn’t recognize any of my countrymen and women back then because everybody was spreading messages of hatred, so I gave them only eyes and mouths.”

– Didier Kassaï, “This is what it’s like to be a cartoonist in the Central African Republic

But there’s something more to this – it’s a style that is instantly shocking to Western eyes, and hearkens back to Tintin in the Congo. That’s not without reason – CAR was treated by France the same way the Congo was by Belgium – divvied up as personal property for Europeans to exploit. France and Belgium left such deep lasting damage to central Africa that countries like CAR and the DRC have struggled with chronic instability and violence since then.

If you wanted to read even further into Kassaï’s artistic choice, you could make an argument that drawing Africans as a faceless stereotype shocks Western readers because it exposes that many people do see Africa as a faceless victims, rather than real individuals with their own autonomy and lives. The whole continent is often treated as an amorphous whole, and the essential humanity of the people living through events like CAR’s civil war are overlooked in a way that they aren’t for conflicts in other parts of the world (say, Ukraine).

Tempête sur Bangui is meant to shake you up, and it does.

It’s only published in French, though there’s a well-translated excerpt in English at Words Without Borders.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Co-Wives, Co-Widows by Adrienne Yabouza

There is a really rich vein of literature that centres around women and their responses to polygamy across Africa, especially it’s power dynamics and how traditional practices are interpreted today. For some, polygamy is a confining and threatening loss of autonomy, like in Angèle Rawiri’s The Fury and Cries of Women, and others, the structure and responsibilities of traditional polygamy are a way of flipping the script on a philandering husband, like in Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife.

Adrienne Yabouza takes a different angle in Co-Wives, Co-Widows – the first Central African novel translated to English. Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou face the sudden death of their beloved husband, Lidou, and the upturning of their everyday lives. The shock of his death is just the beginning, as they have to face Lidou’s cousin, who is bent on using all the tools at his disposal – violence, courts, bribes – to force the wives and their children off of their inheritance and take control of Lidou’s property.

It’s a story of female friendship, as the two women go from being only connected by a man, to partners (sisters, really) who rely on each other as they fight a system stacked against them. It’s a short, sharp, funny novella about resourceful women.

BANGLADESH: Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain

A lot of reviews of Saad Z. Hossain’s Djinn City say it resists classification, and I really agree – it’s ostensibly a scifi/fantasty novel, and definitely starts out as one. Indelbed is a young boy in Dhaka, from a prominent family line fallen into poverty, with an alcoholic father and a mother who died in childbirth. His lonely existence is changed when his father falls into a coma that is not what it seems, and Indelbed discovers the magical parallel world of the djinn – ancient, powerful beings with magical powers.

However, this is not a classic “hero’s quest” – the djinn are litigious, vain, and caught up in their own political dramas, and Indelbed ends up abandoned in a dungeon for most of the book. Most of the action shifts to his older cousin Rais, who learns the levers of djinn bureaucracy and status trading, and then works the system to try and find answers about his family, and to stop one bored djinn from unleashing tsunamis to wipe the Bengal Delta clear of humans on a whim.

Don’t let the magical setting fool you, this is pretty heavy stuff – murders, assaults, betrayal, being broken (physically and mentally) to survive, the shock of accidental death, and a deep lore. My one quibble is that is absolutely sets you up for a sequel more than it wraps the plot, but it also means I’ll be looking for the sequel.

Hossain bases much of his writing on djinns, which started as pre-Islamic Arabian myths, then were incorporated and spread through Islam into the stories of countries like Bangladesh. He writes in English, and writes in a way that is accessible to Westerners, but not in a way that exoticizes his own country and culture to pander to that audience. There’s an air of a South Asian Neil Gaiman about his writing.

There’s a great interview with Hossain from last year in Dhaka on djinns, using Asian mythology in his writing instead of the Norse mythology that Western fantasy is based on (see: Tolkein), as well as the writing process, and how humans are barely hanging on.

BANGLADESH: 1971 by Anam Zakaria

1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.

Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.

Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.

In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).

In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.

India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.

Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.

It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.

UKRAINE: The White Chalk of Days

The White Chalk of Days is an anthology of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature and poetry, edited by Mark Andryczyk. It’s got an interesting mix of styles and subjects – beautiful and ethereal poetry, absurdism, dark satire, touching prose, and my favourite, the short story “Owner of the Best Gay Bar” by Serhiy Zhadan – some down-on-their-luck grifters trying to make it rich by opening the first and only gay bar in town, despite not knowing either anyone gay or how to run a bar.

The anthology’s introduction is valuable too, covering the recent generations of Ukrainian writers – those writing samizdat in the late Soviet era, the creative flourishing of the 90s, and the influence on and from other Eastern European literary scenes (particularly Poland). It’s a neat, well translated collection, and a good introduction to current Ukrainian writers.

UKRAINE: In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas by Stanislav Aseyev

Stanislav Aseyev is a Ukrainian journalist and writer from Donetsk, who first gained notice for writing for Ukrainian papers about the reality on the ground in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. He was jailed in 2017 by separatist militants, tortured, and was eventually released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange. In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas is a collection of his writings from 2014 to 2017, the last piece “A Knack for Losing Things” written while being held captive. After his release, he wrote his memoirs about the ordeal in The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

The translation and release of In Isolation into English last month is extremely timely, not just because the world’s attention is on Ukraine, but because this gives some well-needed nuance and complexity to the war. Aseyev himself is pro-Ukrainian, and watched how propaganda, economic desperation, and a nostalgia for the Soviet past turns his friends and neighbours from Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationals to ardent supporters of the DPR as a breakaway republic. It’s an incredible study of shifting identity and the re-establishment of the idea of “Novorossiya“, while showing the absurdity of war – little old ladies crossing monthly back into Ukraine to double up their pension, voting in in the DPR’s “primaries”, the merging of Orthodox Christianity with old Soviet holidays, and the lives of separatist militias shaking down cars at checkpoints for cash.

The ominous part of the book is that it lets you extrapolate what’s now happening in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian-Russian war is now centred. Repelling a Russian invasion from proudly Ukrainian locations is one thing, but fighting over parts of Ukraine that have felt cut off (and have cut themselves off) from “the mainland”, have been building a pro-Russian identity for almost a decade, and have been living in a state of war for just as long? Unfortunately, no matter how else things fall between Russia and Ukraine, things are going to stay ugly in Donetsk for a while.

ECUADOR: The Ecuador Reader

When I covered Chile last year, I came across The Chile Reader – turns out there’s a whole series of these useful books on different Central and Southern American countries. The Ecuador Reader is a great big tome of short primary and secondary documents following through Ecuador’s history – historic letters, poems, academic texts, travel journals, and more, all with explanations giving historical context and tying it all together.

As a smaller country that’s been pulled into different neighbours’ orbits (especially Peru and Colombia) and one with three extremely different regions – the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon, Ecuador doesn’t really build up the same coherent national narrative that Chile does. Instead, those internal and external tensions make up so much of Ecuador’s story – and how politics, capitalism, labour and Indigenous movements try to bridge those gaps.

The influence of Indigenous people in Ecuador’s history is particularly interesting – about 25% of the modern population is of Indigenous origin, while another 50-60% are of mixed European and Indigenous background. However, like most other places in the Spanish Empire, Indigenous people were so thoroughly marginalized that for a while they were not even counted on the census or as citizens. That drove a lot of separation from identity and a process of “othering” that still is not undone.

ECUADOR: Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda

I will argue, straight up, that Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda is a horror novel that women can get through (though not unscathed), but most men just would not be brave enough to handle.

It’s a multilayered psychodrama, starting with a schoolgirl kidnapped by her teacher, and unwinds a teetering and uncomfortable tale, building on different times, different narrators, different writing styles, slowly piecing the story together. A group of teen girls at a good school start working themselves up into a collective madness, as their teacher fights with her own inner demons. It builds on campfire horror stories, Lovecraftian horror, creepypastas, and cults, all of this tied into primal urges, puberty, human bodies, trauma, and mothers and daughters.

Think of the vulnerability and instability of puberty and teens as a girl, but writ large into psychological horror. I thought it was an astoundingly good book, and it so unsettled me that I am never going to read it again – and I mean that as a compliment.