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There’s perhaps no greater challenge to one’s sense of self than travelling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This experience is so instantly disorientating and isolating that you’re forced back into a state of infantilism struggling to communicate what you mean with those around you. It also provokes self-reflection making you consider assumptions about the meaning of culture and language. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign country I’ve felt simultaneously energised with curiosity and very vulnerable as I pondered these issues. This experience is powerfully conveyed in Iwaki Kei’s novella “Farewell, My Orange”. The story primarily focuses on the experience of two women who move to Australia: Salimah from Nigeria and Sayuri from Japan. They meet in an English language class. Gradually they form a bond amidst their different feelings of estrangement and establish a more robust sense of independence. It’s a poignant tale of friendship that considers the ways in which meaning is filtered through language.

Having left Nigeria with her family under strained circumstances, Salimah’s husband abruptly leaves her. Suddenly she’s the sole provider for her two sons so finds work in the meat department of a grocery store. Along with this enormous responsibility, she takes steps to learn English. Accounts of her experience are interspersed with letters that Sayuri writes to a teacher back in her native Japan. She moved to Australia because of her husband’s work and although she was an advanced student in her native country, she’s forced to enrol in a basic English class to learn the language. When tragedy strikes she must reckon with the direction she wants her life to take. Fascinatingly, the beginning of Salimah and Sayuri’s friendship starts before they can even communicate with each other. Their connection is formed not so much through speaking to each other but an awareness of each other – through gestures and presence. I think this is so interesting because it highlights how our sense of other people is mostly formed from observation rather than what people directly say to us.  

Sayuri’s accounts written in letter form are more naturally self-reflective as she ponders the various ways living somewhere that she doesn’t speak the language is disorientating and sharpens her senses. She observes how “While one lives in a foreign country, language's main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one's fight with the world. You can't fight without a weapon.” It’s curious how language is something that feels second-nature to us most of the time but when we don’t have the right words we’re left defenceless and unable to express our needs. This applies to both basic physical needs and emotions whose subtlety can become completely lost when we can only gesture or speak in broad terms. Therefore, the connection between Salimah, Sayuri and other individuals in their class is formed more from an intuitive understanding of each other’s needs as women and mothers in a country that is foreign to all of them.

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Although so many things about the environment and culture are different for Salimah, the one consistency she clings to is the colour of the setting sun which was the same in Nigeria. It’s really poignant how Kei describes Salimah’s story as the meaning of home slowly shifts for her and this change allows a more expansive potential to grow in ways she never considered before. It’s also shown how expression through language is both communal and highly individual: “the cultivation of the written word, the language that sustains thought, is an individual matter, a thing that endlessly changes as it's propagated inside each person's head.” We instinctively revise what we want to say and write in our minds before putting it out into the world. This is done as we reach for the right words which will better express our feelings and ideas. These women’s stories capture this sense in an absolutely fascinating way and I was greatly moved by their journeys.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIwaki Kei
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Recently I was discussing with someone what makes good historical fiction. The kind of historical novels I love most are those that build stories out of footnotes in history to give you a different perspective on a particular time period. There are often little intriguing details you come across in historical accounts which obviously have larger stories to tell. It provides such a tempting jumping off point for an author to fictionally fill in the gaps within history books. Pursuing the question of why these gaps exist is itself an interesting question that can also be explored in the telling. So it’s not surprising that Andrea Camilleri was intrigued by the fact that the widow donna Eleanora became the viceroy of Sicily in 1677 for only twenty seven days after her husband’s death and how there are only a few references to the radical progressive reforms she tried to enact in that short time. He’s built out of this a wonderfully gripping, comic and fascinating tale of a cunning woman who took a position of great power and her struggles amidst the reigning corrupt patriarchy of the time.

Camilleri mostly focuses on the perspectives of the male officials of the court rather than Eleanora herself. For the majority of the novel she exists in the background as a spectral figure and is even described as hovering. It’s as if, like the moon, she rises as a powerful presence in the night to illuminate the reigning darkness. The cycle of the moon lasts exactly as long as Eleanora held her position as viceroy – hence the novel’s title “The Revolution of the Moon.” The way in which we read about the lives of these corrupt officials scrambling to shore up their power and maintain their wealth/positions amidst Eleanora’s changes makes much of this novel satirical in tone. It’s a comedy that exposes the arrogance and pettiness of these princes, rich merchants and members of the clergy who are suddenly put into a tailspin as they might finally be persecuted. But, like the best satire, this tone of narration comes from a place of real anger as Camilleri depicts the way these men’s actions exploit the working class and abuse vulnerable women and children.

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The plot intriguingly follows the difficulties in persecuting these entitled men and a great tension arises as to whether they will slyly evade punishment before Eleanora is removed from power. It was also interesting learning about how the governing of Sicily functioned at this time of history. There was a complicated arrangement by which the king of Spain ruled over the country, but never had direct involvement in its politics which were all handled by viceroy. That viceroy’s position was also partly controlled by the pope. It meant that Eleanora had to be very careful negotiating between the powers, the influential patriarchy and the will of the Sicilian people. Camilleri depicts the strategies of the opposing sides like a tense game where each is trying to outwit the other. It’s amazing Eleanora was able to enact humanitarian changes and weed out some of the blatantly corrupt as she did in such a relatively short time period! I can’t help thinking her story is somewhat reminiscent of that of Lady Jane Grey who almost a century earlier ruled as Queen of England for only nine days. It’s a sad fact that many progressive women in history who would have made excellent leaders were swiftly removed from office by ruling powers more interested in maintaining the status quo. 

Last month I started reading Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” but I was put off by what felt like an overriding misogynistic humour throughout many of the stories. (I made a whole video here asking how we ought to read problematic classics.) Part of what made me love reading “The Revolution of the Moon” so much was the way Camilleri similarly depicted the cruel reality for many women and working class at this time of history and how their subjugation was tied in with the laws of the nation. I felt Boccaccio made their downtrodden condition into the basis for humour without exploring these characters’ humanity. But Camilleri shows the plight of the disenfranchised and how many were eager for social change. He also makes the arrogant patriarchy into the butt of the joke rather than those who are their victims. It makes this novel into an inspiring, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable read. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s important for any oppressed minority group to have a physical location where people can come together to socialize, organize and form a sense of identity together. In Saleem Haddad’s striking debut novel that place is a bar called Guapa with its bustling mixed clientele on one level and a more radically charged groups who watch cabaret performances on a lower level. It's interesting how the descriptions of this place feel very recognizable to read about as if it were any gay-friendly bar in Berlin or New York City, but the bar's patrons and the issues they raise when speaking to narrator Rasa are specific to the location. This is within an unnamed Middle Eastern city undergoing extreme political turmoil. The novel follows a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man who lives with his grandmother and has been working to found a new media company after a period studying in America. As the city teeters on revolt against the authoritarian military regime, closeted Rasa's personal life undergoes its own upheaval having been discovered in bed with his boyfriend/habibi Taymour by his grandmother. This highly engaging story describes with great passion and intelligence how Rasa feels isolated within a society which is divided by Eastern/Western values and straight/gay culture.

Rasa realizes that he's gay during his adolescence and after his first sexual encounter he experiences a divided sense of self which comes from being homosexual in a repressive heterosexual culture: “I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.” After his father dies from terminal cancer and his mother disappears he's left alone with his loving but conservative grandmother. He goes to university in America where he thinks he'll find the freedom to be himself and hangs a poster of George Michael above his bed. But interestingly he experiences a more intense level of aloneness here - especially because he's in America when the planes crash into the twin towers and he's made more aware of his “otherness”. He describes this with great feeling “I was no longer someone with thoughts and dreams and secrets. I was the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilization.” While he struggles to connect with people socially and romantically in America, he does discover authors such as Amin Maalouf, Karl Marx, Partha Chatterjee and Edward Said. Their books introduce him to systems of thought which help give him perspective and better understand the world around him.

Rasa listen's to Oum Kalthoum's sing 'The Ruins' whose lyrics seem especially relevant to his troubled love affair with Taymour

When Rasa moves back to his grandmother's apartment in the Middle East he's determined to help facilitate change within society alongside his friend Maj who stages subversive drag acts. But they encounter many unique problems which make any progress extremely challenging. Maj in particular is frequently beaten and arrested because he's an effeminate man who is vociferous about his political opinions. When Rasa falls for Taymour he wishes to create a secret shared space where they can love in the way they naturally desire. It's moving when he describes how his feelings for Taymour are bound up with feelings for his homeland: “I loved Taymour because he was from here, because everything in him reminded me of everything here, because to love him was to love this city and its history. And yet I couldn’t love him because he was from here and so held ideas of how to be and how to love, which would never fit in with the love that we shared.” The contradictions and divisions in the society around them follow them into the privacy of the bedroom. This is what makes it a tragic love story.

“Guapa” is ultimately an inspiring novel written in a vigorous and convincing voice. Rasa forcefully asserts his individuality outside of any stereotypes or expectations of how any society wants him to conform. It was an immense joy and pleasure to read this book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSaleem Haddad

Sometimes real happiness can only be found through a radical process of self reinvention. It takes a considerable amount of courage to move to a new country on your own, leave behind everything that’s been familiar or change your name to become another person. “Sergio Y” is powerful novel about how some people aren’t able to really be themselves or fulfil their potential within the family, community or even the body that they were born into. It’s about the extensive lengths some must go to and the hardships they must endure to fully inhabit the life they were meant to live. This novel is also a compelling mystery whose story becomes more and more intriguing with every new bit of information its obsessive narrator tracks down. 

There can be something really powerful in a good tale told in a simple direct prose style. “Sergio Y” is narrated in short sections by a seventy year old therapist named Armando about incidents surrounding his client Sergio Yacoubian. Armando boasts that he is one of the most respected doctors in São Paulo, but Sergio's case haunted him for many years and became something of an obsession. Sergio came to see him as a teenager troubled by a sadness he didn't understand. After months of sessions in which they discussed his life, particularly his great-grandfather's emigration to Brazil where he escaped the massacres which occurred during the Turkish war in the early 20th century, Sergio alighted upon a path towards happiness. He moved to New York City and went through the process of transitioning from male to female. However, Armando wasn’t aware of the fact Sergio was transgendered when he treated him. Consumed with guilt about a case he didn’t fully understand, Armando investigates what happened to Sandra by speaking to her family, American therapist and her troubled neighbour. Gradually he comes to a better understanding of what it means to seek real happiness in life.

Although this novel has a deeply tragic element to it, it’s admirable how Porto makes of the story something ultimately hopeful. He shows that strength of will and determination can triumph over circumstance. Here he movingly describes the state of mind required to initiate radical change: "Many manage to improve on the first drafts of the lives they are given. But for that they need the courage to jump off a diving board fifty meters high, blindfolded, not knowing if it is water or asphalt that awaits them below." This novel is also a sympathetic and refreshing portrait a transgender individual. Even though I read about an equally compelling transgender character in Jenni Fagan’s recent novel "The Sunlight Pilgrims" it still feels as if dynamic and interesting characters that were born with the wrong gender don’t often appear in many books. I would love to see more novels where transgender characters appear where their transition isn't necessarily treated as an "issue" but a simple fact. This is something I believe "Sergio Y" somewhat achieves because Sandra herself doesn't struggle with her transition process; it's the doctor who must come to terms with it. It was a great pleasure reading this emotional and fascinating new novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” was recommended to me by Poppy in one of the comments on my June post about the best books of 2015 so far. The premise of this novel instantly grabbed me. A middle aged librarian falls for a young man who enters her library and they engage in an intense affair. For me libraries have always been spaces of sexual discovery as well locations for intellectual engagement and community support. Surely many pre-internet bookish teens first found out about sex and romance in the pages of library books. However, it’s also a physical meeting point where you might unexpectedly encounter someone with the possibility of romance. I discussed this at the launch of Ali Smith’s recent book "Public Library" and many people in the audience nodded sympathetically. Librarian Mayumi Saito has read countless novels about illicit affairs from “The Lover” to “Lolita.” Therefore she’s unusually aware about the pitfalls of giving into temptation. Yet she can’t resist the passion she feels for the seventeen-year-old boy she meets making this novel a moving and knowledgeable meditation on love in all its varieties.

Mayumi lives on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts with her husband Var and their young daughter Maria. Her marriage has become loveless leaving Mayumi feeling very lonely. When the young man (who she refuses to name throughout the novel) enters her library he gives her the imaginary possibility of romance that soon becomes an obsession. At first, reading about this is somewhat tedious like listening to a friend describing a continuous romantic fixation. As she acknowledges: “I alone felt the thrill” making it feel of little interest to anyone but herself. Where this novel really picks up is when the physical realization of this love affair sends her careening off into dangerous emotional territory.

There are frequent references to islands throughout this novel – both inhabiting a physical island and an island state of mind. Tseng brilliantly describes the transforming emotional state of Mayumi throughout the book. At first she finds “by reaching out to the young man, I had made myself an island.” This is a place of physical, emotional and sexual satisfaction like none she’s felt in years. But this is an affair with many layers of complexity because of the fact of her current marriage and the extreme age difference between the couple; she knows it must eventually end. This terrifies her in a way she aptly describes here: “The image of my small life without the young man was one of a library with its doors locked, or, simpler and more terrifying, that of a book with half its pages missing.” Her emotions are complicated by fear and guilt. Soon “the island of my mind was such a horror.” She has been irrevocably changed. Her reality is filled with the fear of discovery, the guilt of wronging both her lover and husband and the terror of losing this emotionally vital new part of her life. The novel continues into areas of experience which are unexpected and gripping.

An obvious parallel for this book is Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” which follows the affair of a much younger man by a mature woman through a third party. Mayumi doesn’t shy from facing the reality of taking advantage of a man so young blithely acknowledging “In the end, I didn’t mind being a rapist so much as I expected.” There are very real potential legal complications of having sex with a seventeen year old. Added to this are even further levels of emotional complexity when Mayumi becomes friends with the boy’s mother Violet, a solitary individual struggling with her own feelings of dislocation.

I felt a nice twinge of recognition early on in the novel when Mayumi makes a reference to “the Mishima novel about a boy who spies on his mother’s lovemaking.” Having read “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea” earlier this year I instantly knew this was the novel she was referring to. Don’t you love it when you instantly know the text being referred to by an author? This will no doubt happen to many people reading this novel as many classic books are referred to throughout the book. In addition to adding to the plot by drawing in a multitude of references to literary love affairs, this also gives pleasure to the reader who knows the central character is such a keen reader herself.

“Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” is an intense and intimate novel which captures layers of emotion not often covered in the innumerable libraries of novels about tragic love affairs.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJennifer Tseng