Tag Archives: Women Writers Reading Project 2021

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Just Us - An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Title: Just Us: An American Conversation
Author: Claudia Rankine
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241467107
Genre: Nonfiction, Essays, Black Literature
Pages: 360
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Just Us is not an instruction manual. It doesn’t tell you how to be, or behave, or cannot even teach you how not to discriminate. What it does is take the discussion of race up by a couple of notches. This book is a book that impacted me deeply with Rankine’s conversations with people about race, her stream of consciousness and thoughts as she encounters people and situations.

Rankine packs so much in one book – poetry, dialogue, illustrations, and lots of footnotes that give not only clarity to the topic but also evokes empathy in the reader. While reading this book I was reminded a lot about Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, though it doesn’t chronicle the history of caste as Wilkerson does, but it does have its roots there.

She also speaks of her white husband and how he views the world she inhabits and is a part of, which is very different and how there are still some differences in his understanding of what she goes through. Rankine’s writing is easy, and candid. Though the book is primarily about colour, it is also most certainly about gender, orientation, appearances, and what it takes to be a writer at large.

Just Us is a book that is not only relevant in the sense of what we should do, but also to reflect on what we have been doing. Rankine writes a book that is for all – irrespective of the country you live in – casual racism is prevalent and is something we cannot deny. Like I said, this book will make you introspect and understand the world better – and hopefully make us change our ways, day by day, evolving as we go along.

The Gaze by Elif Shafak. Translated from the Turkish by Brendan Freely

The Gaze by Elif Shafak

Title: The Gaze
Author: Elif Shafak
Translated from the Turkish by Brendan Freely Publisher: Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241201916
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations, Women in Translation
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Reading Elif Shafak is a thing of joy. For me at least, and I am guessing for most people as well. I am also one of those who perhaps didn’t enjoy The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi as much as her other works, but even then, I will never write her off basis one book. Anyway, back to the point.

I have started an Elif Shafak Reading Project this year – to read one Shafak every month starting with The Gaze, which I reread in January. The Gaze still is my favourite book written by her. It unpacks so much. It is layered with so much – our preconceived notions about people, about the way they look, and how we look in that regard; of how the world views us, and how our desire to look at others takes life spinning in different orbits.

The Gaze is perhaps not Shafak’s popular book, but I absolutely adore it. A story that spans across time and characters that are embroiled in the concept of how they look and what it means to them. An obese woman and her lover, a dwarf, decide to reclaim the streets. They decide to step out in the world that ridicules them. So, they reverse roles. The man wears make-up and dresses like a woman. The woman sports a moustache on her face. This is their story.

There is then the story of Memis that takes place centuries ago – who decides to create a circus of people, and not animals – weird looking people to get others intrigued and curious to come and see them. At the same time, we see Memis’s loneliness and why he does what he does. In all of this, there is also the Dictionary of The Gazes that the dwarf is working on. It is based on incidents, and movies, and what does the gaze mean at the end of the day.

Shafak’s prose shines on every page. The writing is terrific and for me it was hard to believe (as always) that this was one of her earlier works. The translation by Brendan Freely is on point. At no point do you feel that you are reading a translated work. The book is suggestive. The book is all sorts of unique and perhaps even difficult to get into. The book isn’t linear in its narrative and I love that about it. Read The Gaze to get a sense of Shafak’s writing and the worlds she conjures, as an extension of the world we inhabit.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Title: The Vanishing Half
Author: Brit Bennett
Publisher: Dialogue Books, Hachette UK ISBN: 9780349701462
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2/5

I really wanted to like The Vanishing Half, and I also did to some extent, but some parts of it were just too boring and the plot did nothing to build on the characters of the twins, who leave the town they are born and raised in one fine day.

The Vanishing Half is the story of very light-skinned identical twins Stella and Desiree, who grew up in the tiny Louisiana town of Mallard, that is inhabited only by light-skinned people. The story reminded of “Passing” and I was quite intrigued to therefore read the book. The story of these twins and their lives in and out of Mallard did nothing to arouse my interest nor did it whet my appetite after the first three chapters.

The writing is good, in fact great in some places. The bone I had to pick was with the plot and like I said the characterization of the protagonists. It does not take into account the important topics that is somewhere also at the core of the book – that of sexism, colorism, domestic abuse, and being a trans person. I could not see anything moving in that direction. It then becomes the usual – about family, sisterhood, and their children and that’s that. The Vanishing Half got me all excited but left me feeling all wasted at the end of it.

The Good Girls – An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro

The Good Girls - An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro

Title: The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing
Author: Sonia Faleiro
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0670088829
Genre: Non-fiction, Gender Studies, True Accounts
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Faleiro had heard about the Badaun killings on Twitter, in the year 2014, as did most of us. It shook her to this extent that she decided to go the village of Katra in the Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh where the death of two teenage girls, who were also cousins, took place. The picture that circulated on social media was that of them hanging from a mango tree, whose memory is etched in so many minds and hearts. Though momentarily forgotten perhaps, it can be conjured in an instant. Between 2014 and 2019, Faleiro interviewed everyone connected with the deaths to produce a story in which there are different perspectives – each struggling to make themselves heard, each hustling for credibility.

Whether it is a cousin who claimed to have seen the girls getting kidnapped by Pappu Yadav, a 19-year old from the neighbouring village. Or whether it was someone else who had claimed to have spotted Pappu with the girls (who are known as Padma and Lalli in the book). Or whether it was the parents and relatives of these girls who didn’t act soon enough, scared that their honour will be at stake. Well, at the end of the day, the truth is that the girls were dead.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro is not just an investigative book or a “non-fiction novel” as some would seem it to be. It is a chronicle of what women go through in the country on a daily basis, and this isn’t just restricted to one region or is a function of being educated or not. The brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012 is a testament of that fact. The Good Girls is a book that holds no judgement. It is about the facts, and yet Faleiro’s writing is so strong and insightful that you cannot help but feel overwhelmed in most places while reading. The idea that two teenage girls – children really, died before their time. The idea that they could not lead full lives. The idea that we give so much importance to factors such as caste, honour, about how a girl should be and should not be, that we forget to consider life – the very basic essence of life and living.

Sonia Faleiro’s book is about the India that is still struggling with so much – patriarchy, lack of education for women and girls, poverty being the biggest issue (which most , maybe even all politicians turn a blind eye to or very conveniently use it to their advantage), about lack of faith not only in the judiciary system but also in the workings of the police and safety that cannot be trusted, and about the way we treat our women and men at the same time.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing – just the very title says so much. Something that is so chilling, and yet only so ordinary that it could take place on an almost daily basis (and maybe does) and yet apathy is supreme. Sonia Faleiro also without taking any side goes to the heart of that apathy and indifference through this work that chronicles the brutality, that takes place more on a mental and emotional level. Faleiro’s writing is to the point. All facts and suppositions (that sprung from various narratives) are laid out for the reader. Everything is in plain sight. The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing never lets us forget that at the heart of it – of all that occurred, two teenage girls, two children really, with so much life, and possibility and a future, lost their lives to patriarchy and its machinations.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Title: Disappearing Earth
Author: Julia Phillips
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520412
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Disappearing Earth is a book that will keep you on the edge of the seat, and yet make you constantly stop and think about so many things that go on in our world, which no one seems to know of. At the start of the book, two young sisters (ages, eight and eleven) are kidnapped in broad daylight from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east region of Russia. This is how the story begins.

So, while the disappeared girls are the crux of the story, there are other characters that come right after the first chapter, describing how it all happened, and what was the context (well, in a way). We get to know the characters’ lives and their relationship with the sisters, each character describing their own pain and vulnerability. These characters are mostly women, who are leading quiet lives, each suffering in their own way. This is how Phillips opens up the world of this novel for the reader. It is not what it seems and there is so much more to know.

The writing may seem wobbly at first, but it soon picks up, and gives the reader so much more. Kamchatka has its own role to play (given climate change), but ultimately the book is about the fragility of humans and how the ever-changing ecosystem has such a role to play with their psychology. You can sense it all – the dense forests, the expanse of tundra, the glassy seas, the volcanoes, all of it and more, which only add to the complexity of the narrative.

Phillips shows us the mirror of community, and what happens when you cannot trust what you have been born and raised in. The sense of family runs strong in this novel. The writing is sometimes all tell and very little show, but it worked for me just superbly. I would strongly recommend this read.