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.

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.

UZBEKISTAN: A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories translated by Mahmuda Saydumarova

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.

THAILAND: The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon

The Sad Part Was is a collection of short stories by writer and artist Prabda Yoon, and what an intriguing set of short stories it is! They vary in theme and form, with experimental stylistic turns – one short story is contained in a sentence’s parenthesis, others play on words or concepts, and in my favourite, a short story character breaks the fourth wall to rail against Yoon himself.

The stories have introspective and slightly off-kilter angles, with some callous situations, like truckers shrugging over the disappearance of a vampire, and some sweet, like a woman whose son has never seen snow but still brings her some every day.

The Translator’s Note hints at the skill needed to translate these stories from Thai to English – Mui Poopoksakul won a PEN award for her translation.

THAILAND: Short stories and poetry

The Grand Palace in Bangkok – Source: Fodor’s

From Words Without Borders, a really interesting mix of Thai short stories and poems – a trash dystopia, kid left abandoned to the neighbourhood, and some things never change.

NAURU: Interview with Elmina Quadina

I had the great fortune of getting in touch with Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina and got to ask her about life on Nauru as well as Stories from Nauru – her 1990 short story “A Plea For Help” really stuck with me, and has stuck with others, as one of the most emotionally moving piece of writing in that book. In the story, Elmina writes about her frustrations and challenges and lack of understanding about her hearing loss in her 30s. We chatted about the short story, how things have changed since then for Nauruans with disabilities, and she shared some great details about traditional food and dress on Nauru.

All photos are courtesy Elmina Quadina, and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Writer and teacher Elmina Quadina

Tell me about Stories from Nauru, how did people respond to “A Plea for Help”?

I was just trying to raise awareness of what it’s like being with a hearing impairment, since l was not born with it but acquired it through later in life. Also to the fact of being made fun of and to think your own doctors think its nothing compared to other disabilities. Just imagining those born without it at all. Got me the guts to do what l did. Yes for sure once l opened up, l was sure surprised to find quite a number of my own people coming forward for hearing tests on the first day the doctors brought in some specialists after launching the book of Nauruan stories.

Making dough for Easter buns with her students

Elmina previously was a stewardess with Nauru Airlines, which included travelling all around the world, including to Japan, Taiwan, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. She is now a teacher at a special needs school on Nauru, which was established in 2002.

At this time I’m teaching pupils of special abilities. They can be a handful, but they are lovable. Myself now being disabled with my hearing impairment, it’s hard trying to catch up with the needs of my students. Though l try to the best of my ability to work with them together as one. Though l was not born with my disability. I have come to understand the needs of these children. There is nothing more important than showing them love and care. I am not the 30 year old but now l’ve turned 60. So don’t be surprised if l’m still on my feet. Hee!!! I guess I’m still young at heart.

What are some traditional Nauruan foods?

Well food to say may be quite different in the old days and how they cook them. But nowadays l guess we people become too dependent with money talk. So usually we buy tin food mostly.

But local delicacies are usually fish. Deep fish ocean fish and reef fish. Local delicacy is raw fish in coconut milk (tuna, bonito, skipjack, yellow tail or others). Octopus cooked in coconut milk. Or salted and dried under the sun. Sea urchins eaten raw.

Actually some Nauruans eat them but not me. I’d collect them for my cultural handcrafts. As you can see from one of the beauty pageants. Shells are used for necklaces, adornment on costumes. And other uses such as house decorations outdoor curtains etc.

Black terns are another Nauruan delicacies.

This is a hermit crab [picture above] that would grow much bigger and becomes a coconut crab. Why its called coconut crab is because it then can climb up a coconut tree to eat of its fruit.

Usually Nauruans are good divers as well. They wouldn’t leave the waters till they have acquired some good catch.

What’s daily life like on Nauru?

Well since this is a very small island. And Nauruan people have acquired more of the modern style of living. I’d say our regular days are just lazing about.

Daily life is just like any other people around the Pacific. Though nowadays gambling is a more fun way of spending the day, though these games are mostly played at any private houses.

Local handfans woven with the use of pandanus leaves, hibiscus fibres or now with modern resources available such as raffias.

Tribal weaving of mats or baskets is not allowed to be used with other tribes. This type of pattern [picture above] usually belongs to the lruwa tribe and cannot be used in any other tribal clans.

You might think Nauru should not be divided into tribes as it’s pretty a small island. But as you can see from our flag, we have the twelve pointed star which represents the 12 tribes. We are of a matrilineal society and our children each follow on with their mothers tribe. So, so far we have lost two tribes to the fact that these two tribes have only male children left and no more women to bare their offspring to continue the tribe.

Traditional costumes are made with our local resources. They are now usually worn during special occasions such as Angam celebrations or Constitution Day and or other such as birthday parties, etc.

Elmina also shared with me some tips and a further recipe to make really good coconut fish – I’ll be sharing that soon! A huge huge thank you to Elmina Quadina for sharing her story, her experiences, and these wonderful pictures.

NAURU: Radio and podcasts

Coming in to Nauru on Nauru Airlines – Source: Fun Geography

Radio Nauru – Nauru’s official radio station – during the day it plays Nauruan programming with BBC News. The music has a good variety – folk songs in Nauruan, religious music, pop and some retro jams. Overnight programming is rebroadcasting Australian talk radio. Unfortunately, the internet livestream isn’t very reliable, sometimes it will go down for a few days. Listen live here.

While I can’t find any podcasts from Nauru, I found some very interesting individual episodes (mainly from Australian news sources) about different aspects of Nauru’s history, culture, and current situation.

ABC Earshot: The secret history of Nauru – A look into the Nauruan phosphate boom and getting into the nitty gritty of how the country lost its fortune – the bad investments, the money laundering, how Nauru ran up against the American Patriot Act when Al-Qaeda members showed up with Nauruan passports, but also how many Nauruans protested the bad investments and the squandering as it happened.

3CR Earth Matters: Listening to Nauru – An Australian environmental podcast interviewing an political geographer who has worked extensively on Nauru to study the effects of climate change on both the island and the people. Has excerpts from discussions with Nauruans on climate, and touches on how extractive colonialism has created an uncertain future for the island – both through the devastation from phosphate mining and rising ocean levels.

BBC Radio Poetry Postcards: Nauru – “Proudly She Sways Her Colour True” by Lyn Detabene, a Nauruan poet and teacher. She also shares about the country, and the importance of supporting and reviving culture and identity on Nauru.

Reveal News: Five years on Nauru – Investigative journalism from 2019 by ABC on the children of detained refugees kept on Nauru and the (lack) of support from the Australian government, as well as how the Australian Pacific Solution came about with Nauru. I also want to flag that if you’re in Canada or Australia you can donate to Operation #NotForgotten, which is resettling the last detained refugees from Nauru to Canada.

NAURU: Stories from Nauru

One of the house rules I’ve given myself is that each month I need to read at least one book written by someone from that country (not just a book about that country). Sometimes that’s easy, but this month I had to go on a little quest – but a successful one!

Because of Nauru’s small population, there are very few books from there. In fact, there seems to only be two books published in English written by Nauruans – a compilation from the 1930s of Nauruan legends and oral history, and Stories from Nauru. I haven’t been able to find any copies of the former, but I have been able to get a copy of the latter!

Possibly the only copy available in Canada is at the University of Victoria, which was an amazing coincidence, because I have access to their library! The information services office was extremely helpful, and they not only let me borrow the book, but couriered it to me from across the country.

So what about the actual book? What is Stories from Nauru like?

Stories from Nauru is a publication coming out of a 1990 creative writing workshop held by the University of the South Pacific – which has a campus on Nauru. The foreword sets out the hope that this will encourage other Nauruans to record their history and experiences. It’s a very short book, only about 20 pages, but the stories in this book are really interesting. They vary thematically – creation and hero legends, both historical and legendary accounts of the arrival of the first Europeans, the destruction of Nauruan culture and the ravages of phosphate mining, as well as pieces of creative fiction.

The one that really stuck with me was “A Plea for Help” by Elmina Quadina, about a 30 year old woman who is despairing at her progressive deafness and her lack of community support. It feels like it’s from Quadina’s lived experience – the frustration and fear is visceral.