The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, January 14, 2019 to discuss The Woman Who Read Too Much by Iranian author, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. The titular woman is the poetess of Qazvin who lived in nineteenth-century Persia. “Everyone spoke of her beauty, and her dazzling intelligence. But most alarming to the Shah and the court was how the poetess could read. As her warnings and predictions became prophecies fulfilled, about the assassination of the Shah, the hanging of the Mayor, and murder of the Grand Vazir, many wondered whether she was not only reading history but writing it as well. Was she herself guilty of the crimes she was foretelling?” She taught women in secret to read and write, denounced polygamy, the veil and other restraints put upon women, and she dared to take off her veil in front of a group of men. For these crimes, she was executed, strangled with her own veil and thrown into a well. Welcoming her martyrdom, she uttered, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” Nakhjavani’s writing style is exquisite, though somewhat difficult to follow a chronological spiral, circling backwards and moving upwards to tell the same stories from the points of view of a mother, sister, daughter and wife.
The Afterword unexpectedly reveals the fact that the poetess is Tahirih, the most famous woman of the Bha’i religion, who wrote many poems that are highly regarded in Persian culture. We appreciated the presence of a new book club member who practices the Bha’i faith and explained many meanings of Tahirih’s story.
The question arose regarding the condition of women during the Tahirih’s time and today. We referred to a book we had read recently, Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi’s Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, that gave us a true and tragic picture of the present status of women in Iran, as well as the persecution of Baha’i practitioners. While I did not find any report on UN Women activities in Iran, I did learn that “Iran’s deplorable record on women’s rights did not stop the Islamic Republic from winning a seat on UN Women, a United Nations body that was formed in 2010 to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality.” (2016)
Also, from Human Rights Watch: “It’s not just women who are repressed in Iran. Anyone who openly criticizes the government risks being thrown in jail. The government also discriminates against ethnic communities like the Kurds and Balochs, as well as people belonging to the Baha’i faith.”
Leita Kaldi Davis
The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, March 11, 2019 to discuss The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving. Irving’s missionary parents moved to Haiti when she was six years old; she left at fifteen. She returned to Haiti in 2010 to cover the earthquake for NPR’s This American Life. At the center of her memoir is her father, Jon Anderson, an agronomist who hiked alone into the hills with baskets of seeds to preach the gospel of trees in a deforested country. Irving’s mother and sisters, meanwhile, spent most of their days in the confines of the hospital Le Bon Samaritain compound they called home. As a child, this felt like paradise to Apricot; as a teenager, the same setting felt like a prison. As she emerges into womanhood, an already confusing process is made all the more complicated by Christianity’s demands. Irving struggles to understand her father’s choices. His unswerving commitment to his mission, and the anger and despair that followed failed enterprises, threatened to splinter his family. His wife and his three daughters did not want to go to Haiti, but he imposed his will and mission upon them. Their marriage became “a patched-together tent of whatever you have on hand to protect yourself from the wind and the sun.”
The conundrum that the Andersons faced in Haiti, trying to create harmony in a chaotic country that they do not fathom, describes the challenge that missionaries everywhere experience, coupled with the plight of the expatriate. As Irving states, “Here’s to home, wherever that is, and whatever it takes to find it.” “Haiti is a country that I have never understood and have always resented and have always wanted to belong to.”
Haiti is called the graveyard of development projects, with its thousands of private organizations whose erstwhile goals usually do not take into account the wishes, skills or culture of the Haitian people. Irving’s father learns this the hard way as he watches his tree seedlings wither and die, neglected by the rural people who do not heed his “gospel.” His Haitian counterpart, Zo, however, has notably more success working with his people to reforest their lands.
Irving’s memoir also recounts the story of the Southern Baptist missionary family of Dr. William Hodges who founded the hospital le Bon Samaritain near the northeastern coast of Haiti in 1954 and suffered the onslaughts of young revolutionnaires who regularly tried to take over the hospital for their own purposes.
I related to this memoir because of my own similar experiences as administrator of Hospital Albert Schweitzer, founded around the same time as le Bon Samaritain and subjected to similar political uprisings through the years. It’s unfortunate that readers tend to take away a negative view of Haiti, skipping over the information about the countless people that both hospitals and their outreach programs benefitted. In Irving’s memoir, and in my memoir, In the Valley of Atibon, (amazon.com), we also profile many Haitians who touched us deeply with their goodness, kindness, courage and dignity.
The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, April 8, 2019 to discuss Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a brilliant Scottish-Sierra Leonian writer who has also worked for the BBC, and is known for her Africa documentaries. Forna is also a judge for The Man Booker International Prize.
The story begins in London one night when a fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech on post-traumatic stress syndrome, and to contact Ama, the daughter of friends, who has gone missing. Attila learns that she was swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing. When, by chance, Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens—mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London—come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds. Meanwhile a consulting case causes Attila to question established ideas on trauma, the values of the society he finds
himself in, and a grief of his own.
The title raises the question of defining happiness and whether, after all, it really exists. Love, trauma, migration and belonging, the conflict between nature and
civilization are some of the book’s themes. Forna’s writing style is sublime, e.g.: “Minutes past midnight the group left Pardis to be mugged by the wind, which came at them down the street like a gang of thieves.”
Our British participant was impressed by the accuracy of all Forna’s descriptions of the streets and landmarks of London, and her perception of attitudes towards urban foxes and other creatures that dwell among the buildings. “She got it all right,” our reader declared. Jean’s struggle to protect the city creatures against citizens who wish to annihilate them parallels differing points of view regarding immigrants. Readers were unanimous in applauding Happiness.
The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, May 13, 2019 to discuss Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani-English author whose novel is based on Sophocles’ Antigone. After years of watching out for her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, in the wake of their mother’s death, the older sister, Isma, accepts an invitation from a mentor in Boston that allows her to resume a dream long deferred of earning a university degree there. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who has disappeared, eventually to surface in Afghanistan in the process of becoming a jidhadist, in the footsteps of his estranged father. Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of Britain’s Pakistani Muslim Home Secretary, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. His father, Karamat Lone, is a powerful figure who influences the destinies of all concerned. He expresses the notion that all immigrants should conform to the host culture and give up empty dreams of preserving their own traditions, noting that “…the nation to which they first belonged had proven itself inadequate to the task of allowing them to live with dignity.” The novel’s ending is shocking and totally in line with Antigone.
Shamsie’s writing style is somewhat uneven in that it evolves into a romantic novel when Aneeka meets Eamonn, but then switches to a powerful exposition of the recruitment and training of jihadists, portrayed by Parvaiz, as well as the threat that children of jihadists pose to a host government. The dangers of ‘Googling while Muslim’ feature frequently in the novel, fears which Shamsie admits dogged her when researching the novel. She admits that she would not have published Home Fire without the security of being a British citizen. This book elicited an impassioned discussion of present day politics, terrorism and the compromised role of women in developing countries.
The UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Monday, June 10, to discuss Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. The title refers to a type of datura or brugmansia plant that is toxic and hallucinogenic. One grows in the garden of the book’s central characters, sisters Chula and Cassandra and their parents, Alma and Antonio. This is the coming-of-age story of two Colombian girls: seven-year-old Chula, who is well off and lives in a gated community in Bogota, and 15-year-old Petrona, who lives in guerrilla-occupied territory (invasiones) and works as a maid in Chula's home. Alternately told from each of their points of view, Fruit of the Drunken Tree describes life in Colombia in the 1990s when people of all classes were menaced by drug wars and the power of “The King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar. Petrona and Chula develop a relationship that is fraught with secrets, terror and guilt. The author masterfully sets the scene on the first page with Chula looking at a photo of Petrona, whom she has not seen for years, holding a baby. “When we left, where did you go?” she asks. The story’s tense plot relentlessly builds and is not resolved until the very last page when Petrona answers “In this photograph was everything I lived. Sometimes the less you know the more you live.” Readers appreciated Contreras’ intent in recounting her personal experiences within the broader context of Colombian history in a flowing, vivid writing style.
The UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Monday, August 12, 2019 to discuss Farishta by Patricia McCardle, the story of an American diplomat who is forced to confront the devastation of her past after her husband was killed in a bombing in Lebanon. She is assigned to a remote British army outpost in northern Afghanistan, where she must report back on meetings among military and warlords, and not divulge that she speaks the local language, Dari, fluently. Unwelcome among the soldiers and unaccepted by the local government and warlords, Angela has to fight to earn the respect of her colleagues, especially the enigmatic Mark Davies, a British major who is by turns her staunchest ally and her fiercest critic. Frustrated at her inability to contribute to the nation's reconstruction, Angela slips out of camp disguised in a burka to provide aid to the refugees in the war-torn region. She becomes their farishta, or "angel" in the local Dari language,and discovers a new purpose for her life, a way to finally put her grief behind her.
Everyone enjoyed the book, McCardle’s first attempt at fiction and, as usual, we had a vibrant discussion about Afghanistan and many other matters.
The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Monday, September 9, 2019 to discuss Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, an Israeli clinical psychologist and extremely talented writer. Eitan Green, the protagonist, is a respected neurosurgeon who has been forced by a professional dispute to relocate from Tel Aviv to Beersheba. Speeding through a remote area in his S.U.V. late one night, he hits an Eritrean refugee walking by the roadside. When he decides that the victim is beyond help, he impulsively flees the scene. The next morning, the victim’s widow shows up at Eitan’s doorstep, holding his wallet and demanding not his money but his expertise. She blackmails him into treating illegal Eritrean immigrants at an abandoned garage that has been turned into an underground hospital. The novel that follows takes readers through the wilderness of the Negev desert and its underworld of Israeli drug dealers, Bedouin gangs and desperate refugees. It is an eye-opener into how Israel treats its illegal immigrants. Some detailed are attached to this report. Everyone agreed that the novel was brilliantly written, shockingly insightful, and exposed us to information and ideas that led to a very animated conversation.
The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Monday, October 14, 2019 to discuss Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig. We all agreed that this is one of the very best books we’d ever read, for its exquisite writing style, and its history fraught with wars and tribal conflicts among many ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Within the vast body of Asian literature, this tiny country has been neglected. We were astonished by how little we knew about it, and greatly appreciative of all that we learned. It took the author fifteen years to write the story of her grandparents, a Jewish man and Karen mother, who were victims of the Japanese during World War II, subsequently persecuted by the ruling Burmese government, abandoned by British protectors, tortured and imprisoned, though the mother fled with her three children to the mountains where Karen people dwelled, and where she suffered atrocities in order to survive.
The author’s mother, Louisa, was marked by her wartime childhood, but when she matured it was her great beauty that brought her fame and a degree of prosperity. Within the Miss Universe context she became Miss Burma in 1956 and 1958. Her notoriety brought her unhappy anxiety, however, as she became the target of vicious rumors about her private life.
She fell in love with a Karen Brigadier General, Lin Htin, Commander of the Karen National Liberation Army in 1964. After his assassination the following year, Louisa joined the soldiers as they attempted to unify pro-democratic groups in Burma, while under constant threat from the ruling military government. She was finally forced to flee and in 1967 married Glenn Craig, a U.S. Naval officer, in Bangkok. She moved to the United States, but her heart remained with the Karens.
The author, visited Myanmar several times with her mother, sharing her sense of identity, and spent two years interviewing her for this book. She comments on meeting 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi. The world is baffled by her inaction regarding the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people, but Craig explains that she is actually a Buddhist Burmese. “She has been an outspoken advocate of democracy, but her version of democracy is a bit different from a liberal version of democracy – for the protection of minorities. In Suu Kyi’s case it would seem to be for the protection of the ruling majority.”
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on November 12, 2019 to discuss an astonishing book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché. The author is a well-known poet who combines the political with the personal in her “poetry of witness.” She was twenty-seven in 1977 when she was approached by a brilliant, if erratic revolutionary from El Salvador. Leonel is a mystery -- a lone wolf, perhaps a communist or CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a small coffee farmer. He has chosen her, because she is a poet, to accompany him to El Salvador to “learn to see” his country, and also to enable him to learn about Americans. Captivated for reasons she doesn't fully understand, she joins him and becomes enmeshed in Leonel’s world. Together they meet with corrupt high-ranking military officers and wealthy government officials. They also visit miserable farmers, heroic aid workers, and clergy, notably Archbishop Romero, who desperately tried to assist the poor and keep the peace. He urged Forché to write about freedom and justice for all people, even as he tells her, “We must hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope.”
Leonel warns her that war is inevitable, and he fears that the Americans will side with the government military who were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas against his beloved campesinos. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as Forché attempts to make sense of what she's experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering. Leonel exposes her to “ … what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at thirteen and who spends all of her days sorting tobacco leaves….”
It took Forché fifteen years to finally publish this story. Of course, she became an activist and has traveled far and wide to talk about El Salvador’s civil war and the factors that led up to it – extreme poverty, government corruption, brutal persecution of citizens by the state – a volatile situation that is timely in today’s world. This is the powerful story of a poet's experience in a country on the verge of war, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.
We have read many books through the years that have shown us human travesties around the globe, but all our readers agreed that Forché’s courageous, poignantly written book touched us most deeply.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, December 9, 2019 to discuss The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore. In 2015, while directing a London version of the play, These Shining Lives, Moore realized that no account of the tragedy existed from the perspective of the women. That led her to conduct her own research and eventually write The Radium Girls.
In 1898 the Curies' discovered the element of radium, which was seized upon as a wonder drug by the medical community and a cosmetic bonanza for skin care manufacturers. During World Wars I and II, hundreds of girls sought employment in the radium-dial factories, where they delicately painted watch and clock dials with a fine paint brush that they dipped into the radium solution and brought to a point between their lips . Unsuspecting, they ingested the solution and were covered with radium dust, delighted with the glow of their faces and bodies. Then they begin to fall mysteriously ill with grotesque, agonizing symptoms that were not diagnosed by physicians unfamiliar with the new element. The factories that once offered golden opportunities ignored all claims for compensation by the suffering victims. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, the shining girls found themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America's early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers' rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Readers had strong reactions to this book, dominated by a sense of outrage, in part because of the author’s powerful writing style, and also because the saga of girls and women who were coldly sacrificed to corporate greed still tolls its grim bell through generations to our own time.