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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories is a slim volume, translated into English by Mahmuda Saydumarova. Saydumarova moved from Uzbekistan to Saudi Arabia when she was a child, and went into academia there studying and teaching English and linguistics. She compiled and translated this collection at only 23, intending this to be a brief introduction to Uzbek literature for Western audiences.
The short stories come from a broad range of authors – some written in the first half of the 20th century, some very recent. There’s an interesting mix of tones, some feel more like a parable, others a family drama. “The Sensitive Case” by Farhod Musajonov really intrigued me – a village manager and comedian trying to outwit each other in applying the language of bureaucracy to laughter itself.
Hamid Ismailov is one of the most widely published and translated authors from Uzbekistan, but his work remains banned in his home country and he is not allowed to return – there’s a great interview with him from 2018 about it here. He fled in the early 90s to the UK after the Karimov government opened criminal investigations into him for wanting to “overthrow the government” due to his writings. He had already written The Railway before he left – it was published in Russia under a pseudonym in 1997, and wasn’t translated into English until 2006.
The Railway is a web of short, interconnected vignettes about a fictional small town in rural Uzbekistan. Each chapter tells the tales of different residents, jumping in time anywhere from the late Tsarist era to the Brezhnev years, and builds up a portrait of how all the villagers’ lives connect. The styles of the different chapters change – from realistic to magical realism to parable – but it’s all very satirical, often very darkly so. Character flaws are magnified to the point of parody, but there’s real tenderness and emotion, and an undercurrent of the real dramatic changes that Central Asia has lived through in the 20th century.
Central Asia as a whole, not just Uzbekistan, is a huge blind spot for me in terms of history and politics, so I wanted a good look at the whole region – especially since it’s all so intertwined. Adeeb Khalid is a Pakistani-born academic and expert on the region, and Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present is intended to give a comprehensive understanding. It’s quite the tome, at 500 pages hardcover, and is extremely up to date – it was just published earlier this year.
Khalid looks at the territory that would become the five “Stan” countries, as well as Xinjiang, starting in the mid-18th century and leading up to the present day. He looks at how the region was split between Russian and Chinese influence, the internal power struggles and the colonial nature of Tsarist and Qing rule, replaced eventually by new governments in Moscow and Beijing. The bulk of the book focuses on the Soviet era in the “Stans” – how the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was seen from Central Asia, how it affected local ideas of governance, nation, religion, and culture, followed by the damage to all these ideas by Stalin’s purges and the reforging of Soviet life during and after WWII.
Khalid delves deep into how national identity was established – the idea of Uzbekistan with a majority Uzbek population and power structure but incorporated into the USSR was very different from older ideas of empire and governance. The book touches on the comparative flourishing of economy and identity (including as Soviet citizens) in the Brezhnev era, then the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was not wholly welcomed in places like Uzbekistan), and the recent post-Soviet history of the five countries.
Khalid also intersperses the Soviet story with what was happening in parallel in Xinjiang – how Chinese control was only nominal until the Communist Revolution and how Xinjiang has been dealt a very different fate as part of the PRC. Instead of a level of autonomy and identity as a nation under a larger whole, as in the USSR, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang became a small ethnic minority in a united China, wholly governed by and part of the Han-majority nation, and subject to Sinicization (as well as the human rights abuses we see today).
I’d definitely recommend Central Asia as a great primer for the region – it’s helped me understand the larger scope and scale of the history of the region, and Khalid makes a point to show how the “Stans” are not a homogeneous whole. I’ve also learned the weight that Uzbekistan carries throughout the region – the large population, the value of its economy, but most importantly, the intellectual, religious, and political movements that have come out of cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent.