Tag Archives: women writers

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim Title: Grass
Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770463622
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Memoir
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

 

Before reading Grass, I wasn’t aware of “comfort women”. I wasn’t aware of how they were treated by Japanese soldiers. These women were largely Korean and were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation of Korea before and during World War II. This is the account of how the atrocity of war ruins women’s lives – no matter the country, no matter the place – the suffering of women is universal. Men go to battle. Women get raped. Men go to battle. Women must bear all consequences.

Grass is the story of a Korean girl named Okseon Lee (becoming Granny Lee Ok-sun) – from her childhood to how she became a comfort woman to depicting the cost of war and the importance of peace. The “comfort woman” experience was most traumatic for Korean women that took place from 1910 to 1945, till they were liberated from the Japanese.

This book is painstakingly honest and brutal. It moves the reader but does not take away from the story and the truth, as should be the case. It is as I said before a woman’s story as a survivor – undergoing kidnapping, abuse, and rape in time of war and imperialism.

Grass opens at a time in Granny Lee Ok-sun’s life when she travels back home to Korea in 1996, having spent fifty-five years as a wife and a mother in China. Kim’s interviews with Granny is what forms the base of this book. Some memories surface clearly, some don’t, and yet it doesn’t take away from the book at all.

To tell such a story through the graphic medium doesn’t reduce the significance or the emotional quotient of the narrative. I found myself most moved so many times in the course of this read. Just the idea that these women were not given the agency to think or feel for themselves, and treated with such brutality, made me think of PTSD and how they didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain this or understand what they were going through. All they knew was they had to be alive, no matter what. In the hope of either being saved by strangers, or finding ways to escape “comfort houses”, to get away from conditions where getting a proper meal is a luxury, where your child is taken away from you, where men constantly enter and exit at will, and ultimately to feel human.

The artwork by Kim is brilliant. The scenes that are tough to digest are portrayed with such beauty – in the sense that it exists, hovers above you as you read it, and yet somehow makes you understand, keeping the dignity of the women. I think also to a large extent, the book is what it is because of the translation – which is so nuanced and on point when it comes to brevity and communicating what it has to.

Grass is a book that needs to be read to understand how people get away with the utmost damage to the human soul. Given the fight of haves and have-nots, of gender differences, of how unequal society is, this book should be read, and reread to understand where violence and also empathy comes from.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid Title: A Small Place
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374527075
Genre: Nonfiction, Jamaica Caribbean & West Indies History, Memoir
Pages: 81
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

So, this is my first Kincaid read, and all thanks to the 2020 Reading Women Challenge. Their first prompt is an author from Caribbean or India. Since I’ve read a lot of women from India, I thought let’s give the Caribbean a shot and started with A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid – a rather short, but extremely powerful and engaging book about colonialism and its effects in Antigua. There were so many things I wasn’t aware about Antigua till I read A Small Place, and like I said I was only too happy to read something out of my comfort zone and thereby discover the writing of an author I had intended to read for a while.

A Small Place is a memoir, it is also a history of Antigua in a way, it is also an essay of anger against the people who colonised Antigua, it is also a voice of great empathy that Kincaid has for her country and people. The book begins with an attack on tourists who visit Antigua – what they expect and choose to see versus what the place is.

A Small Place is a short book – but extremely powerful and angry. Kincaid writes about home – about what it meant to her, and what has become of it. Of how the English ruled them, and how their independence has only worsened the situation because of corruption and bureaucracy. Jamaica Kincaid speaks candidly – almost to the point of being brutal – there are no holds barred. The prose comes from an extremely personal space and therefore the writing shines the way it does.

For instance, when she speaks of lack of clean water in the country or even about the beloved old library that was destroyed in an earthquake and how nothing was done to build the new one. And now that there is a new one that has been built (way after the book was published), but there is still doubt if it is open to public or not.

Kincaid’s book is large – very large not only in its scope but also in what it has to say – and how she manages to say it in all in less than hundred pages is nothing short of a feat. That explains the writer she is – succinct, bare-boned, and yet so deeply emotional that every emotion is reflected on paper, and in turn is felt by the reader.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt. Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back- Carl's Book by Naja Marie Aidt Title: When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book
Author: Naja Marie Aidt
Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566895606
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You cannot overcome grief. Grief hangs around, till it decides to leave you. Till such time you cannot get rid of it. It will not let go. As Naja Marie Aidt puts it so eloquently, that it breaks your heart: “Sorrow cannot be cured”.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book is a book about Naja’s son Carl and how she and her family lost him when he was twenty-five years old. Lost him to what? Lost him to whom? How does one overcome such a loss? Does one really? The answer is always no.

The book is about Carl. His life, his loves, his innocence, his need to be there for everyone, and his love for his friends and family. Naja bares it all. She gives it all to the reader – in the form of Carl’s notes, his poems, her poems, other writer’s works on death, grief, and loss. From Whitman’s poetry (which she found in her son’s green jacket afterward) to Anne Carson and Gilgamesh, this quest is also personal (only personal) – that of understanding the nature of loss and how to cope with it (if there’s a way to it).

We all have different ways to deal with death. How many of us acknowledge the loss and speak of it again and again and again? How many of us choose to ignore what we feel and continue as though nothing has happened? The loss of a loved one cannot be contained. The loss of a child more so.

Naja’s book made me see how I deal with death. How I manage my emotions, what I feel, how I communicate, and what happens to me when someone beloved is no more.

The book tore me severely in so many places. The times she speaks of her son – always so lovingly, the way she speaks of who he was and what he was made of, her anger at her son not being present in the world, how he was buried, the future he could’ve had, the reactions of the family, and more – all of them shook me, made me weep, and made me realise how important it is to tell people you love them – to make them know it again and again and again. Death isn’t easy. Living without is most difficult. We all hold on to scraps of memories. That is all what remains.

And here is Naja Marie Aidt’s interview about the book. A must-watch:

 

In The Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado Title: In The Dream House: A Memoir
Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1644450031
Genre: Memoir, Gender Studies
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had read a couple of short stories of Machado before picking up this memoir. I was also aware that this memoir, to a very large extent, would make me see my life and what I had gone through in a toxic relationship. Abuse need not be physical. In fact, the worst kind of abuse is the one that isn’t physical. The kind where no bruises are exposed, no scars are seen, no indication of violence is made known, and the one that isn’t heard or we feel that we cannot talk about it, as it is our own doing that got us here.

 In the Dream House is a book of abuse, hope, and resilience. It is a book about emotional exorcism which we all need to undertake once in a while, no matter the relationship or the intensity or lack of it. It is a memoir of Carmen’s toxic relationship with her first girlfriend and also a history of queer domestic violence. The chapters alternate from one to another. Some chapters read like parts of a larger fairy tale, while others are just downright horrific.

 And what is not surprising at all is the downright honesty of Machado’s writing. She is aware. She knows. The writing spills the heart on to the page. There is manipulation, deceit, a lot of heartache, and in all of this, she gives us glimpses of love. Love for which you stay. Love for which you are willing to perhaps forgive, till you realize that even that cannot change anything in the relationship or the person.

In The Dream House is beautiful and ugly. It is the kind of writing you want to shy away from but you cannot because you are engrossed, absorbed, and not as a voyeur but as someone who has been there (in my case) and knows every word, feels it, and can sense the pain it may have caused.

 There is grace – a lot of it, and then the candour springs on you from these very pages and grabs you at the throat. There is the Dream House as a Lesbian Pulp Novel, Dream House as Epilogue, Dream House as American Goth, Dream House as Sci-Fi Thriller, and Dream House as Ending. Dream House could be anything and is – a beautiful relationship, an abusive one, a one that won’t let go of you, family history, remembrances, queer history, and the author’s life at the core of it. The story she chose to tell and the manner in which she is telling it.

 In the Dream House is confrontative. It enters a territory which doesn’t get spoken about – queer domestic abuse. Machado also mentions at one point that we think queer folks are good and beautiful, but that’s not the case. We are as capable of ugliness. We are after all only human. The past is called on. The bits and sections are not clichéd narratives. There are no stereotypes here. What is there though: A gut-wrenching, redemptive story of the writer’s experiences. A story that needed to be told, and needs to be read.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Title: The Dutch House
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526618757
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a novel of many wonders. It is a box of things that are seen at first glance, only to discover a secret opening, where new things emerge from. This book gives, and gives, and gives some more. As a reader, as a fan of Patchett’s works, as an ardent admirer of what she puts to paper, my experience with The Dutch House has been surreal, mixed with nostalgia, and snatches of memory of my own childhood (though not this morbid or unfortunate).

What is a novel? What should be a novel? Is there such a thing as an ideal novel? Who decides that, if there is something like that? The critic? The reader? Or all of us, trying to find answers to questions of meaning of life, hope, and love as we turn the pages of novel after novel, searching for truths unknown as we move from one work of fiction to another?

The Dutch House is a fairy-tale. It is also gothic in nature when you least expect it to be. It is also full of misery, and then surprises you with moments of hope and togetherness. It is the story of two siblings – how they lose their home, how they understand each other (or not), and how they reclaim some of their lost home.

We are introduced to Danny (the narrator), and his older sister Maeve right at the beginning of the book. Their introduction to their would-be stepmother Andrea is where the book starts, and that’s when the series of events unfold in front of the reader – travelling between the past and the present of the novel.

The fairy-tale element runs strong, with a fair share of the Gothic that adds to the strong plot. Not to forget the way Patchett builds on the characters – from the housekeepers to the people that enter and exit from the siblings’ lives. Each character and each plot point is thought of to the last minute detail and maybe therefore this novel is as close to being perfect or it already is in more than one way.

What I found most interesting was the use of narration – by using the first-person narrator technique in a novel where time is of most importance, we see events unfold through two perspectives – the younger Danny and the older Danny. A doppelgänger effect, adding another layer to the complexity of the book.

The Dutch House is deceptively simple. It is a book that seems so easy to read on the surface, and it is. However, it is in joining the dots that are far and wide that adds to the reading experience. It is for this reason and more that Patchett is one of my top 10 favourite writers and will always be. She makes you feel, she makes you internalise how you think and feel as you read her books, and more than anything else she reminds you that being humane is the heart of it all.