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.

GABON: The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

Angèle Rawiri holds the honour of being not just the first female Gabonese novelist, but the first Gabonese novelist, with her books published through the 80s. Her third novel, The Fury and Cries of Women is her best-known and most widely acclaimed. It follows Emilienne, an accomplished professional in a fictional Gabonese city, who met her husband while they were both at university in France. While outwardly successful, Emilienne is caught up in pressures from her husband (and from herself) to have a second child, especially after their daughter’s death – despite Emilienne’s pregnancies ending in painful miscarriages. Conflict with her husband over his infidelity and an antagonistic mother-in-law grows worse and more antagonistic, crossing from dysfunctional to melodramatic, and sending Emilienne into the arms of her female secretary, and things spiral from there.

It’s a really interesting book that puts a deeper spin classic “modern woman vs. tradition” trope, building on African feminism vs. Western feminism, and the inability of women to “have it all”. The afterword had an interesting discussion on “rebellious women” vs. “disobedient women” in literature, and where Emilienne crosses the line between the two. There’s also a class element here – Emilienne has her struggles intensified (but also has the ability to fight back) exactly because she is a powerful woman, who owns her home and out-earns her husband.

NEW ZEALAND: The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Talk about a book that leaves you with a “book hangover” – I stayed up to the small hours hooked into Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and needed to sit and think on it afterwards. This was the first novel from New Zealand to win the Booker Prize, and the first debut novel to do so. It follows the friendship between Kerewin, a tough, odd, hermit-like woman (very much modelled on Hulme herself) and the friendship thrust upon her of Simon, a strange, mute child, found after a shipwreck, and his adopted father, Joe.

It’s a heavy book, with the protagonists struggling with isolation, trauma, abuse, illness, and alcohol, and yet, it’s not one of those dark “horrible things happen on every page” novels. Terrible things do happen, and generational trauma perpetuates itself, but it’s an oddly optimistic book. The focus is on healing, and how an awkward found family of very imperfect people can muddle forward through their own pasts and own weaknesses.

There’s also a subtle metaphor on culture and background in New Zealand – Joe is Maori, Kewerin is part-Maori and disconnected from her heritage, and Simon is white, and what eventually helps each of them comes from their own histories, but also, from their relationship with each other.

NEW ZEALAND: New Treaty, New Tradition by Carwyn Jones / The Waitangi Tribunal

New Treaty, New Tradition: Reconciling New Zealand and Maori Law by Maori legal scholar Carywn Jones is a deep look at how Maori law operates as its own legal system, and an argument for legal plurality as part of Indigenous self-determination. Jones argues that the Treaty of Waitangi, the foundational document between Maori and Europeans, should really be treated as two different legal systems making an agreement, like an international treaty. He looks at the reality as well, how Maori law and legal concepts are used today, but only inside the larger structure of New Zealand state law, which naturally means these concepts and laws need to be forced into the shape given for them inside English common law.

Jones also looks at the treaty settlement process through the Waitangi Tribunal, and touches on parallels with the modern treaty process in Canada, and the issues that come through having a Eurocentric process seeking a “final settlement” and moving on. It’s a dense piece of legal scholarship, but interesting, especially in comparison to how land title and treaties are handled in other settler countries like Canada. Oddly, when I took Aboriginal Law in law school, we touched on Australian and American cases, but little from New Zealand – it seems like the tribunal process can avoid the need for blockbuster Supreme Court cases.

For more information on the Waitangi Tribunal and how treaty settlements are made, I’d recommend this documentary from TVNZ – it’s in te reo Maori with English subtitles. It also touches on the weaknesses of the treaty settlement process, and how effective it is in practice.

NEW ZEALAND: A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones

A History of Silence feels like a novel – Lloyd Jones is a famous NZ novelist after all – but it’s not fiction. This memoir was written after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, as the shock and trauma of it prompted him to dig into his family’s history. He pieces together what little he knows from family lore, a challenge as his family was prone to the classic bottling up of feelings and concerns, and ends up learning possibly more than he wants about his parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

We writes with the flow of a novel, and while there’s some very funny and odd bits, it’s generally a quietly sad memoir – the discomfort of unearthing real pain and rootlessness, and dealing with death and aging. His deliberations with the undertaker, while befuddled with grief, over his recently-passed mother’s body hit me the hardest and genuinely brought me to tears.

Locally Foreign: 2020/2021 in Review

My first year of Locally Foreign is coming to a close – I’m including the first month I did in December 2020 as part of it. It’s been incredibly fun to start this project – I’ve had friends and family join in (especially to play 20 Questions to guess next month’s country) and this has turned into such an enjoyable hobby. I’ve read a lot of good books, tried new food, listened to new music, and learned so much about different parts of the world.

This year (and a month) I covered 13 countries. My random selection pulled a good variety of countries: 2 Latin American, 1 Caribbean, 3 European, 2 Mid-East/North Africa, 2 Sub-Saharan African, 2 Asian, and 1 Pacific – though I do “re-roll” if I get a country too close to a recent one. For 2020/2021, I covered:

My goal each month is to learn new things about the given country – sometimes I’m starting with almost no knowledge (like Mozambique), and sometimes it’s a place I’m already familiar with (like Finland). A familiar country can pose it’s own challenges; and it can be an embarrassment of riches with countries that have a big online presence in English or French. I haven’t yet run into what I’m calling the “mega-countries” – places like the UK, US, India, or China – those may be genuinely overwhelming when I do come to them.

However, that’s the fun of it – I’m not trying to become a scholar and expert on each country I cover. I just want to get a glimpse and come away knowing a little bit more than I did before, and have a bit more richness of experience in my daily life.

Here are some of my favourite things from this last year:

While I’m not a cooking blog, food definitely makes up a big part of my posts. I tend to split food posts up into recipes I cooked myself, restaurants I’ve gone to, and snacks imported from that country. Here are some of my favs:

Each month had more than just recipes and books – even at the superficial one-month level, I was able to learn so much about each country’s history and culture, and examine my own biases and blank spots. At the end of each month, I summed up what I learned. For countries I knew little about going in, like San Marino, Mozambique, Togo, Albania, and Uzbekistan, I got great introductions to their history, arts, geopolitics, cuisine, philosophy, conflicts, and more. For more familiar countries, like Finland, Chile, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago, I was lucky to get a richer and more complex understanding and engage more with content created by people from those countries, instead of about them. Israel was a look into the internal complexities, conflicts, and culture outside of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that dominates most of our headspace. I had only heard of El Salvador in the context of gang violence, and that month helped bust a lot of stereotypes I held. Algeria made me think critically about settler colonialism – what, if anything, is the difference morally between French Algeria and Canada, and what narratives do we construct to justify our history?

Nauru was probably the most genuinely impactful month in my own life. The story of this tiny country, which had the sudden rise and dramatic fall of a lottery winner, is deeply interesting on its own. I also had the good fortune to get to know Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina, who shared her own experiences (and a great recipe). But the biggest impact was reading The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs – an exposé into Australia’s refugee detention camps on Nauru and Manus. This is a live issue, with people still being held in contravention of international law. After reading that book and talking further with Isaacs, I got involved with #OperationNotForgotten, run by MOSAIC and Ads Up Canada. This program is hoping to resettle the remaining refugees through Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program. I’m now on a settlement team here in Ottawa, and we’re working with with someone currently on Nauru that we are hoping to help get to Canada, and once here, help them settle in. The first few people have already arrived in Canada, and we’re hoping to welcome the rest as soon as possible!

Now, with Locally Foreign, there’s always stuff I wish I could have done better or stuff I missed out on. I had a few things that I ordered come too late to include in that month, most notably the excellent novella Neighbours: The Story of a Murder by Mozambican author Lília Momplé. I was also hoping to get an chekich bread stamp for my Uzbek non, but it got hung up in customs.

Looking back, there’s a few subjects I could have done better on. I absolutely dropped the ball on Israeli food – there’s so many good recipes like shakshuka or the immense variety of Jewish cuisine from the Diaspora that has returned to Israel, and I really did not do justice to that cuisine!

I also debated on how much I wanted to focus on conflicts, poverty, or oppression – I certainly don’t shy away from posting about real issues in countries, but I feel that’s also the only things we read about some countries in the media. Looking back, I also noticed I only really post about LGBTQ matters in countries where the situation is either positive or improving – I guess it’s because I’m well aware already that homophobia runs deep in many parts of the world.

All in all, it’s been a great first year, and I’m really excited for what I’m going to learn next year! For everyone that’s followed along, commented, or contributed – thank you!

Addendum: The chekich bread stamp has arrived from Uzbekistan! Seems like a good excuse to make another loaf of non!

SAN MARINO: Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe by Thomas Eccardt

San Marino is the second microstate I’ve had on Locally Foreign, the first being Nauru, and I picked up this book to get a bit of a better look at microstates, especially since their small size vs their sovereignty leads to some interesting political outcomes (like Nauru’s strategic recognition for Taiwan and Abkhazia).

Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe by Thomas Eccardt looks at the seven true microstates in Europe – Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City. By focusing on the European ones, Eccardt draws on the parallel history led them to exist as fully sovereign countries. The European ones tend to have a path to sovereignty than the island microstates in the Caribbean, Pacific, or Africa, which usually mirror the colonialism to independence routes of the larger countries in those regions.

Eccardt splits the book into two, the first half a general look at the seven microstates as a whole, and the second half covering each one individually. What’s really interesting with these seven is that they all have so much in common, but when you time you try and pin them all under one generalization, one or two are almost always exceptions – and it’s never the same ones.

Their sovereignty generally exists because of the luck of history – most are neutral countries (except Luxembourg, which is in NATO) and most are mountainous and out of the way from the major sweeps of history (except Malta and the Vatican). Most are remnants of princely territories (except San Marino), and all are Catholic. They speak either Romance or Germanic languages, except for Maltese, which is a Semitic language. They’ve got varying levels of democracy, from the strong princely control of Liechtenstein and Monaco to the robust democracies of San Marino and Luxembourg. All have been affected by the same forces of European history – all were under the Roman Empire, all were under either the Hapsburgs or the Papal States, and Napoleon had his hand in all of them – conquering Malta and Luxembourg, gaining control of Andorra, Monaco, and Liechtenstein, crushing the Papal States, and specifically deciding to preserve San Marino as an “example of freedom”.

This also gives a good look at how the microstates navigate their relationships with their larger neighbours, as most are in customs unions or agreements that give a larger state a level of control. For example, France has a right to revoke Monaco’s independence should they fail to have a successor to the Prince,or that Andorra’s heads of state are the French President and a Spanish bishop. How the microstates make their economies function is also interesting – most have economies based on tourism and as tax havens, but all have looked at ways to diversify their economies. The Vatican, of course, is a weird outlier in most cases, since it may be legally a fully sovereign country, it really doesn’t function even remotely like one.

Overall, the European microstates have more in common than not, and it’s interesting to look at how microstates function as a type of country.

SAN MARINO: Historical and Artistic Itinerary by Giuseppe Rossi

I don’t give myself a lot of hard rules with Locally Foreign; I like the freedom to be spontaneous in what I find each month. However, I do have one rule I stick to – I try to read at least one book each month by an author from that country. Some months it’s easy, but some months it’s really hard. This is one of those months. While there are a fair number of Sammarinese writers out there, I couldn’t find anything translated into English or French (if anyone has a suggestion, please leave it in comments!)

What I did find was San Marino: Historical and Artistic Itinerary by Giuseppe Rossi – a slim travel guide to the country. However, there is a bit more that can be gleaned from this book than just some pretty pictures – Rossi is clearly deeply patriotic and adds plenty of rhetorical flourishes to what could otherwise be a bloodless travel guide. He hammers repeatedly on the importance of liberty, freedom, and independence as Sammarinese values, and of tradition as a way to protect San Marino’s identity and sovereignty. He makes this the main plank of his guide:

The people of San Marino do not have a language of their own, nor are they different in any way from their Italian neighbours. It is consequently vital that they remain attached to the glorious traditions of their past, to the long struggle and sacrifices made in the name of freedom.

As this book was edited and published by San Marino’s state tourist bureau, it is an interesting peek at the country’s official narrative and how patriotism is articulated there.