The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, January 11, 2021 to discuss This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwean novelist, playwright and film maker. This book is the last in an internationally acclaimed trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions in 1988 followed by The Book of Not in 2006. Dangarembga is also a feminist political activist who urges women to take control of their lives and cease to blame outside powers for their woes. When she was arrested last July for protesting against government corruption, she stated, “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This is the principle of faith and action.”
Through the book’s protagonist, Tambudzai, Dangarembga depicts the ironic psychological effects of global capitalism on a country whose citizens have been fractured by that system. Tambudzai’s struggle to achieve independence and fulfillment reflect the struggles Zimbabwe has been experiencing as it navigates the same journey. In her attempts to gain success in the fields of marketing, school teaching and, finally, tourism, Tambudzai descends into insanity, hallucinating a hyena that possesses her and invasions of insects across her body. One chapter takes place inside a mental institution. The author uses the second person voice which, in a sly way, makes the reader feel complicit in Tambu’s detached indifference to acts of violence against vulnerable women whom she blames for accepting their fate.
The reader is left wondering whether growing up under racist colonialism, followed by decades of Robert Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship could leave a character like Tambudzai (or indeed the author) so deeply scarred and cynical. Readers agreed that Dangarembga’s writing is superb, and the book is very powerful, if unsettling.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, January 8, 2021 to discuss The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carmac, who represented the United Nations at the Paris Climate Accord conferences in 2015. They are also the founders of Global Optimism (www.GlobalOptimism.com). Their book presents a worst case scenario if we do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions and the warming of the planet, and a best case scenario if we do. They point out that we can no longer afford to say that we’ll do what we can. “The time for doing what we can has passed. Each of us must now do what is necessary.” They provide a helpful list of activities that can be accomplished individually to avoid a global human catastrophe noting that, whatever happens, the Earth will endure, but humans might not.
The goals of the Paris Accord are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, cut global emissions to half their current levels by 2030, half again by 2040 and finally to net zero by 2050 at the latest, a challenge that President Biden has accepted as the U.S. rejoins the Paris Climate talks.
To attain these goals, the authors put forth three principles: (1) Stubborn optimism (a determined attitude that involves sharing our convictions with others; (2) Ending competition to attain Endless Abundance, a shared winning where everyone can benefit without impinging on each other; (3) Radical regeneration, restoring nature’s capacity for self-renewal through rewilding areas that humans have destroyed. Having a vision is essential, a vision that includes freeing ourselves from rampant consumerism and advertising to reduce, reuse, recycle.
A thread of Buddhism runs through the book, as Rivett-Carmac was a Buddhist monk for two years. He espouses the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence and non-attachment. Thus, "Let go of the fossil-fuel dominated past and forgive without recrimination.”"In the end, you are responsible for what you choose to believe, in a world where … Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after it.”
We had a dynamic and inspiring conversation about this book that included Fran Palmeri an award-winning writer/photographer, author of Florida: Lost and Found, who has been exploring natural Florida for the past fifty years. We also welcomed several guests who joined us from England, and shared their knowledge and passion about the environment.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, March 8, 2021 (International Women’s Day) to discuss Vice President Kamala Harris’ autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Many readers wore pearls, her favorite jewelry, in her honor. We all felt that after reading and seeing the many photographs of her life story, we had an excellent idea of who our Vice President is. She writes in a direct style like someone who is used to writing reports. She is engaging, however, when she interjects her personal feelings into political issues. She is open about her experiences as an Indian and Jamaican American, fraught as they were with prejudice. Being an immigrant is “ … an experience too often scarred by stereotyping and scapegoating, in which discrimination, both explicit and implicit, is part of everyday life.” She was very close to her mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who was a breast cancer researcher.
Her father, Donald Harris, was an economist. Harris confronts every issue confronting our country with empathy and clear-minded analysis, with firm values and principles that are inspiring and, equally important, lead to solutions.
She sees women’s issues as vitally involved with the economy, national security, health care, education, criminal justice reform, climate change, immigration reform, student loans, race, religious freedom. Her last chapter is entitled “What I’ve Learned.” There she lists her lessons and guidelines for succeeding in life’s challenges and for political action: “Test the hypothesis; Go to the scene; Embrace the mundane; Show the math; No one should have to fight alone; If it’s worth fighting for it’s a fight worth having; You may be the first; don’t be the last.” Each lesson is illustrated with examples and explanations that convinced us all of her genius and power. As a woman, she affirms that “… together we are powerful, and cannot be written off.”
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, April 12, to discuss Gift of Diamonds, the first in Transylvanian Trilogy, which is followed by Love Odyssey and Treasure Seekers by Roberta Seret.
Dr. Seret is the founder and executive director of the non-governmental organization (ngo) at the United Nations, International Cinema Education Organization, and the Director of ESL and Film for the Hospitality Committee of the United Nations. She is an adjunct instructor at New York University in English and has published various articles on film reviews for the Journal of International Criminal Justice, and Oxford University Press. She also works for the United Nations Global Classroom, and is author of the book World Affairs in Foreign Films. Transylvania Trilogy is her first fiction series. Dr. Seret honored us with her presence during our zoom meeting, and we were fascinated to hear about her life, her marriage to a Romanian doctor, her long career at the United Nations and her extensive knowledge of Ceacescu and other totalitarian regimes.
Mica, the 16-year-old protagonist’s story, begins in 1965, when she is trapped in communist Transylvania after her parents had been arrested by the secret police. Escaping alone at night in a perilous journey, she crosses the border and seeks political asylum at the American Embassy in Budapest. But she is never free of the secret that she has escaped with her family’s cache of rare colored diamonds that may be cursed. With help from Embassy officials, Mica applies for a visa to the U.S. Her goal is to use the diamonds to secure her parents’ safe passage to America. But until she gets to her uncle in New York and sells her diamonds, she is tried in ways beyond her age with misadventures and hardships.
The author identifies with all the victims of totalitarian regimes, such as Ceacescu’s. Stories of historical characters are woven into the narrative. While readers expressed their enthusiastic admiration of Dr. Seret and her accomplishments, some felt that the story line of Gift of Diamonds was improbable and the writing style needed major editing.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, May 10, 2021 to discuss Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, originally from Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City. Mbue is a political activist writer. Her second book, How Beautiful We Were, is about the exploitation of the Nigerian delta by Shell oil, the devastation of the people there, the failed revolution, execution of Ken Sara-Wiwe and others. The title of Behold the Dreamers recalls a plaque at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination: “Behold the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we will see what will become of his dream.”
In Behold the Dreamers Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, dreams of providing a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six year-old son. In the fall of 2007 Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty, and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, offers Neni temporary work at the Edwards’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni imagine that they can gain a foothold in America. Neni enrolls in college classes and studies constantly, pursuing her goal is to become a pharmacist. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job, even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an agonizing choice.
When Neni has an interview with the dean of her school, he advises her to become something “achievable”, a licensed practical nurse or ultrasound tech instead of a pharmacist. She is outraged, seeing her dream slip away. “If she were a citizen, she would be a pharmacist in no more than five years with a nice SUV and a home in Yonkers …”
Mbue told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I realized that a lot of immigrants I knew were disillusioned. Not only immigrants, even Americans who I met, they were disillusioned about the American dream. And so through this African immigrant chauffeur and the Wall Street executive, I was able to explore the cost of the American dream.”
Immigration plays a pivotal rôle in this story. After Clark fires him, Jende suffers physically and psychically. His visa application has been turned down and in despair he requests voluntary deportation to Cameroon along with his family. “If America says they don’t want us in their country, you think I’m going to keep on begging them for the rest of my life?”
The day before they leave Neni, heartbroken, is sitting on the floor with everything packed. “It felt as if she was in a dream about a home that had never been hers.”
Readers felt that the book poignantly portrays the plight of many if not most immigrants who seek asylum in the United States. In the light of "anti-immigrant" rhetoric, the novel brought to light the "vast bureaucracy designed to wall off the American Dream from outsiders.”
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Zoom Monday, July 12, 2021 to review The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. This remarkable story starts in 2014 in Kobani, northeastern Syria, where an all-female militia waged war against ISIS. As they gained the respect and admiration of male troops, they also fought to establish women’s rights. Their stories of having been forced into marriages, denied education, and locked out of politics by ruling forces is told eloquently and intimately by the author. Their personal narratives never sound like the interviews they were based on.
In 2004 northeastern Syria was a peaceful Kurdish enclave more or less autonomous, untroubled by the regime until a contentious soccer match ignited regime reprisals. In Kobani a coalition of Syrian Kurdish forces, Peshmerga, Free Syrian Army defectors. Northern Syrian Kurds called the YPG had organized themselves into units to fight ISIS, and were later joined by a women’s contingent named YPJ. Together they routed ISIS from Kobani and even from Raqqa where ISIS had established their fantasy of a caliphate. Both the YPG and the YPJ founded the Raqqa Women’s Council whose goals were to organize women on economic, social and political issues and address women’s needs. The Congress Star women’s organization affiliated with the northeastern Kurdish Democratic Union Party also includes the PKK, whom Turkey views as terrorists. The YPG/J also took on the expulsion of ISIS from Mount Sinjar in Iraq where they held thousands of Yezidi people whom they they persecuted as heretics.
We discussed a number of topics, like why women from around the world joined ISIS, the United States’ role in aiding the Kurds, which incitied the wrath of Turkey’s President Erdogan, and our involvement with the Peshmerga in Iraq. We learned about Nadia Murad Basee Taha, an Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist, who in 2018, along with Denis Mukwege, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict". She is the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Lemmon has written on the integration of women into combat roles and the challenges faced by female veterans in the U.S. for PBS NewsHour, CNN and Daily Beast. In 2015 she published Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of a fearless young woman who brought hope to dozens of women in war-torn Kabul.
Readers felt that Daughters of Kobani, while extraordinary book could have, in fact, covered a larger picture, such as the involvement of Russia and the tragedy of Aleppo. We also wished for more details about the withdrawal of U.S. troops under Trump’s administration in 2019 that left the Kurds to fight alone against Turkish incursions into their territory on the border. The UN Security Council recently proposed a resolution to have Bashir al-Assad arrested for war crimes, but Russia and China vetoed it.
When the author interviewed one of the YPJ protagonists about whether the loss of 10,000 lives had been worth it, she repled, “I fight so people can live freely. It is much more difficult to have a family and children without a future, when you know you can’t obtain education in your language, can’t live in freedom on your own soil, and constantly live in fear of death.”
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met Monday, August 9, 2021, to discuss Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey Toward Independence by Leila Abouzeid, who is the first woman author to write in Arabic and to have her works published in English translation, along with many other languages. Abouzeid refuses to write in French because “…it is the language of their foreign invaders, and Arabic is both Morocco's official language and Islam's language.” Year of the Elephant was published in 1980, and in English in 1989 by Texas University. It was translated into French only in 2005. The title refers to a battle in Islamic history, when a flock of birds dropped stones on the enemy elephants, causing them to turn around. She compares this historic battle to Moroccans battling for independence because they were mere birds compared to the gigantic global power of their French rulers.
Eight intriguing short stories follow the titular novella. The protagonist, Zahra, has just returned to her hometown after being divorced by her husband for being too traditional and unable to keep up with his modern way of life. Having devoted herself, alongside her husband, to the creation of an independent Morocco, she had expected to share the fruits of independence with him, but instead she finds herself cast out into a strange world. She is no longer a resistance fighter and she is no longer a wife. As Zahra struggles to find a place for herself in the new Morocco, her efforts reflect Moroccan society's attempt as a whole to chart a path in the conflict between tradition and modernism. Zahra insists on behaving like a typical total Arab woman, while her husband adopts French ways. She is writing about her mother’s generation. But that was fifty years ago. Abouzeid says that now women’s roles have changed dramatically, at least in urban centers.
In the introduction, Elizabeth Warnock Ferna writes, “The resonances of Classical Arabic and the mixture of old and new Arabic present in the novel may not always be apparent to the reader of the translation, but descriptions represent elements found in classical Arabic literature.” The translation by Barbara Parmenter is impeccable. The prose is exquisite, though the author modestly states, “I have not created these stories. I have simply told them as they are.”
Zahra’s religion gives her the fortitude to forge her way as a woman in post-colonial Morocco. In Islam she finds liberation. Many critics offer this as an example of a feminism that challenges the Western construction of feminism as being in direct conflict with the Muslim faith, which Abouzeid strongly refutes. The scenes with Zahra and the local sheikh show how she comes to terms with her catastrophe through spiritual understanding.
We had a very interesting discussion on the essence of feminism, as it exists globally. We see from the many books we’ve read by women authors around the world that while their goals may be freedom, equality and justice for all of them, their challenges can be much harsher than those that western women face.
Lucy Melbourne, who was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco and spent many years there recommended this book and elucidated fascinating aspects of the author’s career, as well as the history and culture of Morocco. We appreciated all her deep insights.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on zoom Monday, September 13, 2021 to discuss The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Born to a Nigerian father, and Indian Tamil mother, Akwaeke Emezi grew up in Aba, Nigeria. Emezi began writing short stories when they were five years old, and received their MPA from New York University. The Death of Vivek Oji was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and, along with their other novel, Freshwater, won a very long list of awards. They were on the cover of Time magazine recently.
The story starts one afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, when a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious, and whose sexual predilections are a secret. While the death of Vivek opens the novel, the horrifying cause of his death is not learned until the final chapter. The author creates a tension of suspense that draws the reader inexorably to the book’s climax, in much the style of a mystery writer.
Emezi, who is non-binary transgender, said in an interview with This Is Africa, “I wrote the book for people like me, who have been inhabiting realities that aren’t considered valid unless they’re pathologised in Western or religious terms as mental illness or demonic possession. I wanted those readers to feel less alone, to know that there are other people living in non-mainstream worlds, and that our worlds are valid. I hoped it would help with the terrible isolation and depression that comes from having a reality you can’t share with anyone else.”
Emezi uses the pronouns they/them/theirs instead of first person pronouns, as do most non-binary transgender people, i.e. “ … not a man in a woman’s body but just not a woman. I exist separate from the inaccurate concept of gender as a binary; without the stricture of those categories. I don’t even have to think about my gender. Alone, there’s just me, and I see myself clearly.”
They consider themself to be an ogbanje, thought to be an evil spirit that would deliberately plague a family with misfortune. Its literal meaning in the Igbo language is "children who come and go".
Several families in this book share the plot. All the mothers are “Nigerwives,” i.e., foreign born women who married Nigerian men. Challenges of inter-cultural relationships dominate their lives, and readers wished that Emezi had written more about that issue.
Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private sexual life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom. Vivek’s death was his liberation. Believing in incarnation, he says beyond the grave, “Somewhere you see, in the river of time, I am already alive.”
Thanks to Scott Osborne for introducing us to one of a new wave of artists who truly are "out there.” Older readers, like me, appreciate the guidance.
We also continued our conversation about global feminism, referring to Rafia Zakaria’s new book, Against White Feminism.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Zoom Monday, October 11, 2021 to discuss Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. The novel was the first work by an Arabic-language writer to be awarded the Man Booker International Prize (2019), and the first novel by an Omani woman to appear in English translation, and in twenty other languages.
The Booker Prize judges heralded the book as "A richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.” The prize, £50,000, is split equally between the author and her translator, Marilyn Booth, in recognition of the role of translation in expanding the world’s literature in English.
Alharthi said, “When it was published in Arabic, the Arabic audience in general and the Omani audience in particular can easily relate to the novel. Non-Arabs cannot really be expected to feel the same sense of recognition. But I think that what attracts us to literature is not that it’s familiar to us, it’s that we can relate to the universal value in it.”
Alharthi’s writing style is modernist, a kaleidoscope of characters that shifts from voice to voice, viewpoint to viewpoint, decade to decade, sometimes within a single paragraph or even sentence. Readers had to constantly refer to the genealogy chart to keep track of the myriad characters.
James Wood writing in The New Yorker, observed: “The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading Celestial Bodies is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct. One of the book’s signal triumphs is that Alharthi has constructed her own novelistic form.”
One reader commented that the title might be indicative of the way that all the characters seem to move in parallel orbits. The novel revolves around three sisters: Asma, who wants to go to university in Muscat after she marries Khalid the artist, but he forbids it. She slowly accepts her fate as she bears fourteen children! and finds peace and comfort among them.
Khawla accepts her husband, Nasir’s, double life with another wife and children in Canada, interspersed with visits to her every two years, leaving her with a new baby each time. He finally comes home to her and she accepts him.
London’s poet husband, Ahmad, feels entitled to total freedom in their marriage, including affairs, but when London divorces him, he says “I don’t want to lose you, and anyway you are my property. You belong to me.” She totally resists that notion and goes on to become a physician.
“Mayya, London’s mother, considers silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection. When you were utterly quiet and still you were likeliest to hear accurately what others were saying. If she said nothing, then nothing could cause her pain. Most of the time, she had nothing to say.”
One of the liveliest characters in the novel is the most ambiguous in status, Zarifa, a slave who became Sulayman the Merchant’s mistress and who largely raised his son, Abdallah, after his mother’s early death. Forceful, large, illiterate, an inveterate quoter of proverbs and traditional wisdom, she can come and go as she pleases among higher- born women, protected by Sulayman’s favor. (Slavery in Oman was abolished only in 1970.)
Most of the chapters are told in the third person, except for Abdallah, Mayya's husband, who speaks in the first person. He’s often speaking in an airplane, traveling on business, but is wracked by inner monologues that are stuck in the past. Curiously, despite the greater freedoms afforded the men, they seem more trapped in the past.
Due mainly to the female interiority of the book, and the brilliant writing style, everyone praised it as a fine work of literature.
We continued our conversation about global feminism, especially as it might be seen in Alharthi’s World. The character who expressed the deepest despair is Masouda, an imprisoned woman who continually wails through the window, “I am here, I am here. I am Masouda.” London, who divorced her husband and became a physician is at the opposite end of the liberation pole.
The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Zoom Monday, November 8, 2021 to discuss It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo. The author began her career in Venezuela as a journalist for El Nacional. Since immigrating to Spain ten years ago, she has written for Vozpópuli and collaborates with the literary magazine Zenda. She is the author of two nonfiction books, Tráfico y Guaire (2008) and Caracas Hip-Hop (2008). It Would Be Night in Caracas is her first work of fiction. Time included this
title among the 100 most important books of the year 2019.
Adelaida, the protagonist, had a stable childhood in a prosperous Venezuela that accepted immigrants in search of a better life, where she lived with her single mother in a humble apartment. But now? Her mother is dead. Every day she lines up for bread that will inevitably be sold out by the time she reaches the registers. Every night she tapes her windows to shut out the tear gas raining down on protesters.
Though we all have been hearing about the dire situation in Venezuela for years, this inside look of a disintegrating society under authoritarian rule gives us a horrifying close-up on people whose lives are direly affected. Borgo writes “I grew up in a very violent society, where life has so very little value that you can die because someone wants to take from you something so basic as a pair of shoes.” Adelaida shows how a victim can become a predator when she steals all the worldly goods and the identity of a dead woman, Julia Peralta, and drags her body to a burning trash dump. “To survive, we had to do things we’d never imagined,” she says. “Prey upon others, or remain silent; leap on someone else’s neck, or look the other way.
“Violence was transformed into a political element. That generates in you a sensation that you are in the midst of a war in which there are no tanks, there are no missiles, but you are in a war for survival.”
Everyone is terrified of “ … the Fatherland’s Motorized Fleet and the Sons of the Revolution that are the state made flesh and blood.” Gangs of women are among the “Sons” of the Revolution, who steal, run drugs and murder with impunity. They seize Adelaida’s apartment and, though she dares to defy them to rescue precious things in her home, they throw her out. She hides in the apartment of the dead woman, biding her time until she can use that woman’s Spanish passport and euros to leave the country. Her escape is hair-raising, but she finally manages to make it to Spain and wonders what will happen when she meets Julia’s family who haven’t seen her for years.
Adelaida is described in the New York Times Book Review as “…someone who is pierced by rage, someone who wants to survive, but feels guilty for being able to survive. The problem, the real fundamental problem, is the way in which that victim—gripped by punishment and desperation—is also a predator. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt.”
“Journalism is literature,” claims the author and her experience in journalism is evident. “I don’t believe in the least that this story refers only to one country and one period of time. All those who have lost or who have had their place in the world taken from them are in this story.”
“[In Spain], at the Peralta’s door she thinks, it was ten-thirty in the morning. Nine thirty in the Canary Islands. In Caracas it would always be night.” Readers all agreed that this is a powerful, unsettling book that definitely deepens our understanding of Venezuela.
We discussed the existence of feminists in Venezuela and agreed with the line, “Venezuela is a world built by women, who are the principal force of this story. Women give essence and body to survival as an act of love and cruelty.”