Reading this at a time when happiness eludes me and only a Turkish word can describe the sadness I feel, a time when the world is in disarray and the cynic in me is more pronounced than I want it to be, it is easier to argue that true beauty, real freedom from the male world’s sway, and lasting transformation surely take more than suggested by this book — but I am also a believer in the wisdom of surrendering to the restorative power of spending a month in a villa in Italy, flowers, rest, and the sea. Oh, I’d take these any day!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that one should not carp about novels like this. You simply open your heart to it, cease overthinking, and allow it to happen — the way you’re supposed to with sunshine, a little frivolity once in a while, and happiness.
So if this book were set to poetry, it would be this poem by Lydia McGrew:
When joy alights like a bird on a fence post arrested in fragile flight, do not frighten her away.
When she comes in the clutch of the heart at the scent of the evening air instinct with life and memory, in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight, in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,
Do not say, There are depths to be plumbed, There are knots to be worried at. I have no time for this.
Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures, Death and disease roam the streets. Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world, and beauty and innocence fall before him. What right have I to be happy?
Rather stand still, And say,
It is a gift.
And with that, I wish us all an enchanted April, and the wisdom and grace to submit to happiness when it beckons. 🤍
“To me, it has always seemed that each individual has such a moment. It is a fixed point in eternity, varying with each person, which they reach, sooner or later, in their trajectory through time. It is this moment which most perfectly expresses them, and to which essentially they belong, in which they live most fully. Both before and after, some awareness of this lies within them, so that in varying degrees of consciousness, they are seeking that moment in order to be fulfilled, or to find again in that fulfillment and setting, the persons who shared it with them.”
“A lifetime or a moment is all the same; a whole cycle lived richly, or thinly, one day. Each can prove to have been the meaning of a life. We cannot know, from where we stand. But if we seek, and are aware we have missed the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time, then we live out our lives unfulfilled. In the words of an eastern proverb: we die with our eyes open — we cannot rest; even in death we are still looking for it.”
Never mind that her longings for a lost love and mine mingled as I luxuriated in the pages of this book. Never mind that some details will raise the eyebrows of conventional social constructs. (“Overweening conventions! They have us in a stranglehold from the cradle to the coffin,” writes Lesley Blanch.) Never mind the question of whether the Traveler corrupted her life or enhanced it; I have two opinions as contrasting as East and West. What is certain is that this woman ended up living by her own rules and did not lead a lackluster life.
But to have bookshelves spilling over because of a geographic fascination and to have the books arranged by region; to have literary tastes swayed topographically; to explore entire worlds by turning pages; to spend hours on long bus rides poring over books; to have “everything I saw, or read, ate, or thought tinctured by my infatuation”; to travel and be particular about the precise lighting in which to see certain places because they look more beautiful in morning, noon, or afternoon light; to find areas of conflict irresistible and be chided for having “such violent desires”; to journey into the mind’s eye or into the heart of another; to see traveling as an act of “following a strain of fugitive music” — I’ve never felt this aspect of myself more probed and understood, that I wish I came across this book much sooner.
There are allusions to be unveiled in the captivating writing, and there are lessons to be gleaned from the interaction between cultures, but the line I’ll take to heart is, “Don’t be so finite,” said the Traveler.
Lesley Blanch lived to be a hundred and three, unapologetically, and infinitely.
“And Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel, The God of Small Things, that catapulted her into international stardom, perhaps so that when she stood to oppose dams and corporations and corruption and the destruction of the local, people would notice… Perhaps they opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too would survive in the world.”
This beautiful passage is from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and The Algebra of Infinite Justice is Arundhati Roy’s book of essays that opposes dams and corporations and corruption and the destruction of the local.
People did take notice, and many of them attacked her and accused her of all sorts of things for it. She was also criticized for not providing enough solutions by those who lost sight of the fact that before we can arrive at solutions, we have to take the first step and pinpoint the problems and ask the uncomfortable questions. This, she does. Courageously.
She asks about the necessity of nuclear weapons acquired in the name of “deterrence”, knowing that it is a matter that concerns humankind. “The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made. If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: ‘We have the power to destroy everything that You have created.’ If you’re not religious, then look at it this way. This world of ours is 4,600 million years old. It could end in an afternoon.” On a relative scale, the same can be said of guns.
She aims questions at those who rail against the first world, but “actually pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage”; she asks if corporate globalization is a mutant variety of colonialism; asks whether the building of dams are not “a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich”; asks who and what has been sacrificed in the altar of “National Progress”; asks how Progress can be measured if we are not even aware of who has paid for it, referring to the millions of people and entire ecosystems displaced or extinguished by dams (a matter Filipino readers should not brush off — even our very own Gideon Lasco has called awareness to the environmental and sociocultural impacts of the Kaliwa Dam Project in the Philippines).
She asks everyone to be accountable: “Isn’t it true that there have been fearful episodes in human history where prudence and discretion would have just been euphemisms for pussilanimity? When caution was actually cowardice?”
“Fascism itself can only be turned away if all those who are outraged by it show a commitment to social justice that equals the intensity of their indignation. Are we ready… to rally not just on the streets, but at work and in schools and our homes, in every decision we take, and every choice we make?”
But I am most grateful for what resides with the difficult questions in that elegant mind of hers: “There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, reinvented and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it.”
“All we can do is to change its course by encouraging what we love instead of destroying what we don’t.”
“The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead…”
“Which means exactly what?”
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never forget.
In truth, these are as difficult as the questions, but who says these are not solutions?
The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that was signed between the Allies of WWI and the Ottoman Empire is not explained here. There is nothing here that mentions how it marked the beginning of the partitioning of the empire, how Armenia was subsequently recognized as an independent state and a referendum was scheduled to decide the fate of the dream of a Kurdistan, but nothing of how the referendum never took place. No details of what exactly happened when the Kurds within Turkish borders clashed with Turkish nationalism; nothing of the decisions, events, or indecisions that led to the extermination of more than half of the Kurdish population in Turkey by 1938.
Throughout the book an unnamed and unidentified narrator addresses a woman muted by grief and coaxes her, not to speech, but to remembrance — a remembrance not of a specific event but of her spiritual and personal history, and the ancient mythology of her people; and I believe here lies the genius of this novel. Without explicitly saying that this book is about identity, Sema Kaygusuz makes this book wholly about identity.
Out of the silence roars a powerful voice that resists all attempts at wiping out Kurdish identity. I have come to understand that this book is, above anything else, a rallying cry for the Kurdish people: For them to never forget who they are. To never give in to the silencing, and to never allow grief to estrange them from who they really are.
What is between these pages is something that we won’t find in the chronologies of history. What is written here is more profound. In this novel that reads more like a lengthy poem, Kaygusuz achieves the impossible task of giving shape to grief and silence, and intimating a manner of history that can only be expressed through obmutescence or poetry.
“Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs… the fig tree whose fruit has, over the course of the history of civilization, seduced and destroyed, poisoned and healed, struck panic in those captivated by its pleasure, and been served like jewels at the tables of kings, pharaohs, and sultans — in order that I might set aside its vitalizing force, its enviable adventure, in writing. What I mean to say is that, over the course of this novel, I am not only my grandmother who survived the massacre: I am also her granddaughter, I am Hizir, and I am a fig, with its countless tiny seeds. Each of us has written the others into being.” — from the Afterword of Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz
Thank you for knowing exactly what I’d love to read and for lending me your copy, Gabi. Always grateful. 🤍
“Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to, literature?”
“Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the ‘real’ everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are so much more. They are a way of being fully human.”
“If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear.”
“…a citizen of literature — which is an international citizenship.”
“Reading usually precedes writing.”
“A writer is first of all a reader.”
“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.”
“But one can write as one pleases — a form of liberty.”
“Writing is, finally, a series of permissions you give to yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall… to find your own inner freedom.”
International Women’s Day finds me mid-Sontag. As you can see, it’s a beautiful place to be.
Happy Women’s Day! May you celebrate Woman everyday! 🤍
Postscript: I have finally finished reading the book, and this reader is left overflowing. Reading, writing, art, dance, music, photography, theatre, travel — this book brims with profound thoughts on what she cared about. She takes your hand and leads you to art, and shows you why it matters, despite a world that tries to convince us otherwise. If there is such a thing as a definitive Sontag, this must be it.
Fleeting patches of sunlight that decorate pieces of furniture, linger on book pages furtively as I read, or momentarily set the crema of my espresso aglow, are lovely indications that summer is gently slipping into the Philippine islands after a sunless wet season.
But why do I even dare write this in the face of a Liberaki who is an authority on sunshine? This Liberaki who does not merely write about it but makes it so tangible that one’s heart becomes dappled with sunlight, too?
There is a little bit of the Little Women in Liberaki’s three sisters in that it portrays in each sister how Woman can make different choices, pursue different interests, hold different priorities, think differently and still remain Woman; portrays how Woman can mean, or can be, “A great many things,” in the words of Alcott’s Jo March. Or as Liberaki’s Katerina replies, “Not just two, but thousands, Maria, or one which could be a thousand,” when Maria remarks on how Katerina seems to want to live two lives.
But Liberaki, daughter of Dionysus that she is, has a certain sensuality that Alcott did not make space for in her conservative depiction, although we love her just the same. This Liberaki sensuality is an elegant one, however, and treats female sexuality as part of life.
What made me pick this up for Women’s History Month was the curious case of an author who insisted on transliterating her name as Liberaki, rather than the more accurate Lymberaki, so that it would correspond to liberation. It is rare to come across an author’s name that already alludes to an untethered mind and sets the tone for a book. But how wonderful to discover that the same author has a command of artistic laws and lavishes attention to detail while creating an exquisite balance of light and shadow!
This sensitivity to art was what enthralled me! For what is sensitivity to art but a reinforced sensitivity to life?
“The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on.” — Albert Camus to Margarita Liberaki
Three Summers was originally published in France through his recommendation.
During WWII, women served in all branches of the military: 225,000 in the British, 450,000-500,000 in the American, and about a million in the Soviet army. The women in the Soviet army contributed to the German defeat, but little was known and little was said about them and the price they had to pay for victory.
Over the course of twenty six years, Svetlana Alexievich sought out many of these women and became the repository for their untold stories. This is part of the body of work that earns her a place as one of only seventeen women out of a hundred and fifteen Nobel Laureates in Literature.
Maybe it’s because Svetlana Alexievich says that she isn’t writing about war nor the history of a war, “but about human beings in a war… the history of feelings.” Maybe it’s because she is what she says she is, “A historian of the soul.” Maybe it’s because she believes, for good reason, that suffering is “a special kind of knowledge,” “the highest form of information,” that suffering has a direct connection with the mystery of life. (“All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love. And these women tell me more about it…”) Maybe it’s because she makes this book of unburdening into an overwhelming choir of over two hundred voices singing a soulful rendition of an unsung threnody for the first time, that it answers my question as to why a piercing account of war can be so beautiful and so important.
Special thanks to Gabi for encouraging me to read this and for giving it to me as a birthday present last year. 🤍
“Do not travel to Yemen due to terrorism, civil unrest, health risks, kidnapping, armed conflict, and landmines. Avoid all travel to Yemen.”
I was constantly met with these words when, during lockdown, I made itineraries for the places I hope to visit in the future. If you know me well enough, I’ll probably be one of the first people you’ll think of whenever you see photos of the architecture in the old city of Sana’a, that stone house in Wadi Dhar, and the otherworldly trees and landscape of Socotra.
The hostile travel advisories did not prevent me from coming up with an itinerary, but my rational side knows it would be safer to travel to Yemen through literature for the time being.
Unfortunately, authors writing about, and especially those from, Yemen are hard to come by. You can imagine my eager anticipation when Fitzcarraldo Editions announced the launch of this book!
Warning: Do not read this in public. Unless you’re okay with weeping in public.
Every page is drenched in heartache and death. It’s the kind of book that Scholastique Mukasonga would call “a paper grave”. A book to put my puny troubles into perspective.
But I think my task as reader is not to highlight how this book made me feel; it’s to sound the sirens and ask others to take time to look into what is happening in a country that hardly enters the fringes of our consciousness.
Inspired by the work of Belarusian journalist and 2015 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich, Bushra Al-Maqtari traveled across her own war-torn country for two years to document the lives and deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire of the civil war that erupted in 2014 and which persists up to this day. But unlike Alexievich, Al-Maqtari lived, and continues to live, through the war of which she writes.
This war has claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, only to serve the greed for power of a few. The least we can do is listen, read, encourage others to do the same, and allow the power of fearless journalism and literature to achieve its goal.
Exceptionally written, it is an essential education and addition to a journalist’s shelf, or any human being’s shelf for that matter. It is a precious but painful work of journalism that makes me wonder at how difficult it must be to gather, to write, and to live these stories — especially as a woman.
The book is the result of one woman’s courageous initiative: “…to ward against forgetting, against feigning ignorance, against indifference,” to emphasize that the Yemeni people “are not voiceless, they are unheard.”
The best of Nawal El Saadawi’s books are nonfiction: They reveal the devastating truth that her works of fiction are, in fact, nonfiction.
A vital textbook for the study of women in the Arab world, The Hidden Face of Eve has a more academic structure compared to A Daughter of Isis, Walking through Fire, and her numerous memoirs that are deeply personal. But all her writings perfectly demonstrate how the personal is political, and there is not a hint of the tedium that we might encounter in textbooks.
The delicate preface alone is worth mulling over and digesting; and the book, thorough in the history and status of women in Arab society from pre-Islam days until the present, often enlightening or enraging, should be read in its entirety. Whether one agrees or disagrees with any of her views, no one will close this book without having learned anything substantial. Reading this showed me what a shallow understanding I have of the matter despite years of delving in books from Islamic nations.
Nawal does not launch into an angry tirade against religion, however, but against those who use religion “as an instrument in the hands of economic and political forces,” those who use religion to deprive women of knowledge and suppress the search for truth by intimidation and obscurantism, and those who misinterpret religion and utilize it as an instrument of oppression and exploitation. She challenges that religion, if authentic in the principles it stands for, “aims at truth, equality, justice, love, and a healthy wholesome life for all people, whether men or women.”
She criticizes feminism that is merely an instrument of a specific class, or a feminism that is fanatical and superficial, stressing that fanaticism of any form should be opposed, whether it be religion, political, or social. Interestingly, she even remarks on the “modern” woman, “who thinks that progress is manifested by a tendency to show more and more of her thighs,” but remains mentally and emotionally suppressed under the surface.
She therefore makes a stand for the education of the female child, the strengthening of the mind, a free mind, and a heightened level of consciousness, pointing out that a girl who has lost her personality through the throttling of her mind will lose the capacity “to think independently and to use her own mind,” and “will do what others have told her and will become a toy in their hands and a victim of their decisions.” Thus, “the emancipation of Arab women can only result from the struggle of the Arab women themselves, once they become an effective political force.” As we all know, this does not merely apply to Arab women. There is also the acknowledgement that “progress for women, and an improvement of their status, can never be attained unless the whole of society moves forward.”
Can you see why I wished to greet Women’s History Month by reading someone like Nawal El Saadawi? But because there is no one like Nawal El Saadawi, I read her.
“…with liberation they stand to lose nothing else but their chains…”
“The woman is you,” remarked those who saw me with this book.
I can only hope to be half as courageous.
But who is she? “To read is to pray,” she taught. “To write is to trust.” Her words had claws, they said, but at the same time they recognized that her silence were double the weight of her words.
She believed in these: That sometimes, illiteracy was fear; that truth conquered fear; that denial was difficult in the face of truth; that the best told lies can prove short-sighted before the long truths of eternity; and that there was no escape for those who took refuge in their ignorance. And of pride? “Love had nothing to do with it.”
Who was she again? Throughout the story we only know her as the woman who read too much. All the women in the book were not given names. Set during the Qajar Dynasty in the 1800s when literacy among women in Persia was not encouraged, and the details of their lives were largely invisible and unrecorded — as it had been for centuries, and as it had been for most parts of the world; this clever literary trick by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is most likely a curtsy to Virginia Woolf who wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”
“No marker on her grave then? None.” Her death is something readers will know right from the beginning. Her story is written in such a peculiar way that it moves forward while moving backwards simultaneously, proving that the best of these Iranian women writers are masters not only in subtlety but also in form, and one can only try not to blink and miss allusions or be helplessly lost.
“History is filled with screams that are ignored.” The reading woman is executed for what she stands, for opposing unreasonable orthodoxy, “for stating the obvious rather than for deviating from the truth,” condemned for showing other women “how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history… giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.” Her death only fanned the flames of the emancipation of women, especially the emancipation of the mind.
Nakhjavani surprises us in the afterword by revealing that the woman who read too much; who, after all, had a name, was a real woman. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the symbolic mother of literacy in Iran.
I glance around my library as I write and wonder at the sudden awareness that, on my shelves organized by geography, the Iran section is the only one where women authors outnumber the men. What better way to honor her!
Here in the midst of “look how far we’ve come” and “miles to go before we sleep,” reading this makes me ponder on the women who came before us; back to Enheduanna (2286-2251 BCE), a woman, the first known author, and to the endless library of history we long to fill… and read.
We’ve always had the rights of the mind at our disposal. We need only take up courage to use them.