When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

When I arrived to England more than 4 months ago I only had two books with me, both of them in Spanish, and both of them intended to keep me company while travelling. But once I settled down I realised that my recent move was the perfect opportunity to request books to publishers that could not afford to send me their books all the way to Spain. So, seeing that everyone was showing off their new review copies of Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I wrote to Atlantic Books for a review copy. I soon got a reply from Sophie Walker kindly informing me that they were not publishing that book in the UK, but they had many others that may be of interest to me. As I browsed their fantastic catalogue I found three books that I had to read: Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers, Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Sophie was amazing, and upon knowing of my recent move kindly offered to send me copies of the three books. I have to say that I did not feel home until I those threen novels reached me. So, thanks Sophie and Atlantic Books for being so awesome.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s second novel, following the critically acclaimed The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and it has taken the UK by storm with is crude and realistic description of domestic violence. The unnamed narrator of the novel tells her story in first person as she marries an educated and socially respected man who hits her, rapes her, and causes her all kinds of pain, damage, and vexation behind closed doors. The power of this novel resides on its challenging of myths and prejudices about domestic violence by portraying the abuse in a young, educated, and successful couple in contemporary India. He is a university professor, a Communist who has a personal crusade against all the evils of this world, especially his wife. She is 26, an only child, and a writer. Together, they look like the perfect, liberal couple ready to take the world by storm, except that like all abusers, he makes sure his wife stays home under false pretences and excuses. The fact that he is a university professor allows him to justify his abuse with all kinds of postcolonial and postmodern theories that at the same time work as an education for his wife:

When I hear ‘your own good’ I am reduced to being a child again. I do not argue any more. I go silent.

The abuser’s arguments belong to that side of left-wing politics that refuse to acknowledge the patriarchy, and the subjection of women in contemporary society. Feminism is not a valid discourse, and feminists are portrayed as difficult women who are making up problems that get in the way of the real, left-wing (masculine) fight. As part of their strategy, these discourses look to ridicule women while erasing any role models, or artistic representations that may validate female lived experience. As part of this power play, the narrator explores Althusser’s strangling of this wife, and his consequent explanation of the act. Meanwhile, female authors and artists are constantly devalued by her husband, receiving the same treatment society and history has saved for them in the past centuries:

I see, it is no longer fashionable to be mad. Depression is the word, isn’t it? Three inches of cleavage, two books of poetry, plenty of sex and depression – that’s all it takes to make a woman a famous writer. Beginning from Sylvia Plath to Kmala Das, that is the only trajectory you have all followed.

Kandasamy is not shy in the portrayal of domestic violence, but she does not let her prose fall prey to voyeurism. Just as domestic violence victims systematically accept the escalation of abuse, so does the narrator and author, hence allowing for a masterful description of attacks like the following:

My hair is gathered up in a bunch in his hand now. He is lifting me by my hair alone. All the blood is rushing to my head, my thighs fight to feel the hard wood of the chair. I am in pain. He drags me from the table and into the bedroom.

What comes next is marital rape, a crime that until very recently had not been recognised as such in many states (Spain one of them). And afterwards come days and months of abuse, and the narrator’s mixed feelings about it. She knows that she is worth more than an abusive husband, she has the education to recognise what is happening to her. She is a feminist. She is an author. She is extremely clever. But that does not save her, or any woman, from becoming a domestic violence victim. Her family also knows, but they insist on her staying in a marriage that turned violent just one month after the wedding for fear of being judged. Kandasamy offers a magnificent portrayal of contemporary Indian society as a troublesome space, where traditions and new ways of seeing life are crashing, exactly the same way they are doing in the West, especially regarding gender issues:

Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes. In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to commute to work. This is the official statistic – the deaths the police do not even bother trying to hide in semantics. The real truth lies int he wailing that never ceases at the burns wards of hospitals.

We learn in the very first chapter of the book that the narrator’s story has a happy ending, at least as happy as expected in these circumstances. The novel is her take on events that seem to be fluid and plastic depending on the ideology of the narrator. Authorship, as she highlights, is something that should be taken very seriously. Domestic violence is not something that happens to uneducated, poor women. It is part of the patriarchy, it can happen to all and any of us. It can alienate us from society, even from our beloved ones.  It is ignored, dismissed, hidden, covered, and even justified. It is terrorism potentially targeting half of humankind, making all women potential victims, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, ethnic background, education, or body. It can happen to me. Or to you. And that is why When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife will be the most important book published in 2017.

The amazing Naomi Frisby from The Writes of Woman recently interviewed Kandasamy for her Youtube Channel. Enjoy!

 

meena.jpgMeena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel, The Gypsy Goddess. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics, and her academic interests include critical pedagogy and linguistic nationalism.

You can learn more about her here.

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. You can vote for it here, by writing a review slightly over 100 words about TWO books, each by a different publishers, from the 150 The Guardian has selected.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I had long wanted to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck, for several reasons, the most important one being that you all love it. I read some Steinbeck back in college, some selected chapters from The Grapes of Wrath and although I thought the writing was really good – I could almost feel sand coming out of the pages – it was suffocating. However, last summer I read Confessions of a Sociopath, by E.M Thomas where the author said that Cathy was the quintessential sociopath. So, I was giving a copy of the book by Mr. B&R last Christmas and I decided to wait until summer, so that I had the time to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

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From Goodreads:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence

Since East of Eden is such a wonderful, complex and widely-read text, I will organize my review differently. I hope this helps both to organize the information and you go and read whatever you are interested in, but I also hope it helps literature students. When I had to read The Grapes of Wrath, I was grateful to find many posts written like this one, because they helped me to better understand and study the book. The study guide contains spoilers, so if you want to read my review, please scroll down.

1. Summary

East of Eden tells the story of two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks in the Salinas Valley (California). The narration starts in the 19th century and progresses to the narrator’s – named Steinbeck as well – present, in the 1950’s. These two very different families have decided to move West to start a better life, but each have their own troubles. Samuel Hamilton has bought infertile land and although he is a great inventor, he barely earns money enough to support his family. On the other hand, Adam Trask has migrated from the Eastern coast with a fortune in search of a new start with her new wife, Cathy. The novel focuses on these two families and the relationships they built, both between them and with their past. While Adam is longing to leave behind his rivalry with his brother Charles, Samuel and her wife, Liza, have moved from Ireland to escape the late 19th century famines that decimated the country.

Once in the Salinas Valley, Cathy gives birth to two sons, one by Charles and another one by Adam and, after shooting Adam, leaves him and starts working on a whorehouse in Salinas. There, thanks to her phenomenal manipulation, she convinces the owner to leave the business to her and, eventually, poisons her. Meanwhile, Adam spends years suffering from depression until Samuel Hamilton gives him a lecture on living. From this moment on, the narrative focuses on Adam’s two sons, Caleb and Aaron who – like Charles and Aron beforehand – stand for a modern version of Cain and Abel.

When Samuel Hamilton dies, the narrative centers on his children, each of whom represent a new way of living in the 20th century: a savvy businessman, a poet, a teacher, a housewife, etc. As they grow up, Adam decides to move to Salinas in search for a better education for the boys and they start to wonder about their mother. When Caleb finds out that she is the owner of the most terrible whorehouse in town, he keeps the secret to himself, knowing Aron is too sensitive to know. Aron himself is dating Abra, a girl they had previously met, but his religious calling stand on their relationship. When he finally leaves for college, they break up and Abra starts a relationship with Caleb. He is the one who feels guilty and starts pondering on whether he can escape his mother’s evil heritage. Finally, in a state of rage he tells Aron about Cathy and he desperately joins the army to fight in World War I. When he dies, Caleb feels totally responsible for his death, but he is forgiven by his father before he dies.

2. Main Characters

a) Samuel Hamilton.- If East of Eden is to be taken as an allegory, then Samuel is one of The Bible’s patriarchs. He is wise, practical and teaches every other character in the novel how to be happy. He is also very philosophical and his mind is very much advanced for the times he is living in. He is also quick in discovery that there is something strange about Cathy and, when she bites him, she develops an infection, as if a snake had bitten him. His wife, Liza, is a very religious, hard-working and stern woman and together they raised 9 children in the Salinas Valley.

b) Adam Trask.- The novel begins exploring Adam’s childhood in Massachusetts. After the early death of his mother, Adam’s father remarried to a young, local woman and they have another boy: Charles. From that moment on, Adam’s life will consist on surviving the extreme competition between himself and his brother while trying to avoid their father’s recently discovered military obsession. Adam and Charles stand for a version of Cain and Abel, and Steinbeck explores sibling rivalry from a very honest point of view. While Adam only wants to be left alone, Charles suffers from extreme jealousy from him and tries and fails to become the preferred son in their father’s eyes. When Adam moves West, there are many references to Eden, however, Cathy will not turn out to be the Eve he expected.

c) Cathy Ames (also appears under the names Cathy Trask/ Cath/Kate).- Cathy was the reason why I wanted to read East of Eden and I thoroughly enjoyed every page I spent in her company. She is – to put it simply – purely evil. From the very beginning, the omniscient narrator shows Cathy to be manipulative, selfish and without a sense of good and evil. In fact, she is described as “a monster”. When she later on marries Adam, she plays with the 19th century idea of being a wife and a mother, but she quickly dismisses it. After she gives birth to two sons, she abandons them and Adam and goes to Salinas where she inherits and runs the most depraved of the whorehouses.

3. Themes

The main theme in East of Eden is the fight between good and evil, embodied by Adam and Charles and, later on, by Caleb and Aron. Steinbeck explores the many different ways in which human beings can or cannot choose their actions and the consequences of these. More often than not, characters are able to choose whether to be good or evil: Cathy when she has her sons, Adam when he is abandoned by Cathy, Charles when he sleeps with Cathy and many others. However, Steinbeck also plays with the idea of each character having their own personal circumstances. When a partner leaves, one can choose to rise or to fall, but one cannot change the fact that they have been abandoned. But, we do have the ability to do what is best with the situations/times/people we are given or encounter, and that is what I liked the most about the novel. This ability to choose also gives us, human beings, agency and freedom to choose and to be and to make the most of the only life we have. Steinbeck makes a symbol of this idea through the world “timshel”, the original Hebrew word in the fourth chapter in Genesis that determines whether Cain would conquer sin or not. You can read the excerpt form the novel where they examine the word here.

Time and the passing of time also become central to the narration. Since the novel explores two different generations, their two ways of living and of growing up are very different. While Samuel wants to be happy and contents himself with his family and surviving, William, one of his sons, is obsessed with making money and, eventually, does not have a family. So, time and money connect two generations and two centuries that represent the most important innovation and technological breach in the history of human beings: 19th and 20th century.

4. Women’s Representation

Reading the books in context is something I always try to keep in mind. East of Eden was written and published in the 1950’s the decade that marked the revival of the Angel in the House image for housewives. American women dreamed of new domestic utilities that would make their lives easier and, eventually, there was a return to very conservative domestic ideals that repressed women. However, the book has a very critical view on women, even those in the 19th century. Steinbeck clearly writes that marriage was the only secure place for a woman and that it gave her social status. However, two of Samuel’s daughters represent two new ways in which women could live: Dessie goes on becoming a dressmaker and Una becomes a teacher.

But it is Cathy Ames who deserves our whole attention. Having already established on a first encounter with her that she is a monster, a modern reader cannot but deduce that she is a sociopath. Her evil actions have, according to the narrator, no purpose and the reader gets the feeling she is a snake looking for her next pray to appear. However, she is described as “masculine” in some parts of the novel, which made me ask whether Steinbeck could not imagine a woman psychopath because of the traditionally lovely attributes of women. She does not care about neither her husband nor her children, she only cares about money, her career and herself to the point of trying to make herself an abortion with a knitting needle. In the meantime, she would be happy to ruin anyone’s life just for the sake of doing so. And Steinbeck also gives her what traditionally and classically she would deserve: her body starts to deteriorate, she loses her beauty and, eventually, she commits suicide.

The book also pays attention a new ideal of beauty for women where “tights had lost their clutch” and when fashion mass-production made Dessie lose her business in San Francisco. It is also Dessie who has an affair with a married man and whose fall in disgrace ends up in her death as well, a death the reader suffers and does not feel as deserved.

5. Postcolonial Representation

Lee is one of the most important characters in the text, because he links Adam, Samuel, Cathy, Aron and Caleb. He plays the role of a maid at the Trask house and he performs typically feminine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, looking after the babies and all the other housework while Adam is lost in his grief after Cathy abandons him. Lee is also of Asian ancestry: he was conceived and born in the USA and, still, he feels a foreigner. Steinbeck explores deeply and with a fresh point of view the lives of those Chinese men who migrated to help build the West. Lee is said to be a foreigner both in the USA and in China and, at the beginning of the novel, hides her mastery of the English language under pidgin because that is how people expect him to speak. But, he is a central figure in the Trask household and once he lets his real identity out, he is a source of help, inspiration and strength for the three Trask men. However, postcolonial critic Edward Said commented on his work Orientalism (1978) on the main ways the “Orient” is constructed in the West and, interestingly enough, Chinese men are seen as feminine, so Lee’s role as a housekeeper could not escape this bit of criticism. He also associates himself and his Orientalism with calmness and, when he fails to remain calm, says he is losing his Oriental qualities. You can read a thesis on Lee’s identity called “CONVENIENT DISGUISE: ENGAGING LEE IN JOHN STEINBECK‟S EAST OF EDEN” by Lowell D.Wyse from the Wichita State University here.

6. Quotes

The following are some quotes that contain – in my opinion – some of the most important psychological and philosophical ideas:

Without money, you cannot fight money.

Steinbeck’s insight of capitalism and the Western world is a pessimistic one, but a realistic one for the 20th century.

It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

I think this quote pretty much sums up one of the ideas about good and evil in the novel, and that is that we build them. Humans have a role in society and we can influence and construct each other. It does not take away responsibility from us and constructs us against nature where there is no evil/good.

Go through the motions, Adam […] Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.

This is, by far, the quote that I loved the most in the whole novel. When Cathy leaves, Adam suffers from a depression and does not take responsibility for his two sons or the estate, so it is Lee who plays the role of the father. However, when Samuel Hamilton visits him, he says this. I have long believed in conductism (Skinner) and perfomativity (Butler), that is simply put: we are what we do. If we want to be writers, we’d better write. If we want to be sporty people, we’d better practice some sport, and if we want to be readers, we’d better read. Or, as many say it as well: “fake it til you make it”. I think if we paid much more importance to actions and we saw the real power they have, we would all act differently.

The human is the only guilty animal.

Also true and also very complex: if we can be guilty, we know the difference between good and evil. If we know so, we can act accordingly. But, still, there is room in our actions for guilt and for repentance. I think they are the tools to improvement. No one of us is perfect, but we have the ability to repent and, as a consequence, learn from our mistakes and – hopefully – be better in the future. Adam and Charles had a flawed relationship, but Caleb’s final repentance, Lee’s lecture and Adam’s “tinshel” show that things can change and it is within us to do so.

7. My review

As you can imagine after reading this post, I loved East of Eden. I think it is one of the most complex novels I have ever read and I loved learning about 19th century and early 20th century California, when it did not mean fashion, glamour and movies. The philosophical questions Steinbeck posts are very interesting as well, and I think he leaves room enough for the reader to think and get their own conclusions. I was also very happy to read that Steinbeck inscribed Chinese men and the work and tortured the suffered while building the West. It is not very often that migrants’ work on the construction of a country is known and inscribed in their classic works.

The reason I wanted to read this book was Cathy and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. She was very complex and very evil, quite a contrast with the other women in the novel who were more classically constructed. I noted down Chapter 21 as one to look up because of how masterful she plans her actions and the consequences they will have.

So, I totally recommend East of Eden to anyone who enjoys reading and, also, to those in search for a complex and very evil female main character. However, the book is long and posts some very important questions, so I recommend having plenty of time to read it, write about it and think about all the philosophical, theological and psychological questions Steinbeck posts.

The Australian Fiancé by Simone Lazaroo

The Australian Fiancé is Simone Lazaroo’s second novel. I borrowed the book from a professor after Simone’s lessons and read if right after The World Waiting to be Made because the writing was so good, I wanted to see how the author’s style developed.

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From GoogleBooks:

In 1949 a young Eurasian woman who survived the Japanese occupation of Singapore meets the son of a privileged Australian family and accompanies him to Broome. Captivated by this life and his photography, she comes to see herself anew, but is the image true? Themes of the novel are the aftermath of war, prejudice and alienation. Author was born in Singapore and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Although I am a crime fiction fan, sometimes I feel like reading other kind of stories and those usually center around a young woman’s life. Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made was partly autobiographical and explored what it mean to be Euroasian in Australian during the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, after the novel being conceived as totally autobiographical, Lazaroo decided to do some research and write a historical novel always keeping the focus on the Eurasian community and their history. The Australian Fiancé came as part of that research.

The unnamed narrator struggles to live in Singapore with her mother and her little sister after the Japanese occupation of the city. The family is having a hard time covering even the basic needs and they usually suffer from hunger and horrible living conditions. However, one day the narrator finds an Australian tourist who wishes to be guided through the most interesting parts of the city to take pictures. Or maybe he wants something more. Lazaroo explores how being a woman changes completely how others see you and how the prospects of making a living out of your body become a real danger. The narrator struggles to define what kind of relationship she has with the Australian tourist who, as you might have guessed, becomes the Australian fiancé on the title.

I did not enjoy The Australian Fiancé as much as I did The World Waiting to be Made. The style is more ornate and the reader does never really get to know the narrator. However, the novel explores how racism intersects with being a woman in a post-war context. I was very glad – and sad – to learn about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Lazaroo compares the British and the Japanese occupation as colonial enterprises that oppressed people with a hardest take on women. Lazaroo made a great effort to inscribe a forgotten period of our global history in Australian literature.

The Australian Fiancé is then the perfect reading for anyone interested in women’s representation in fiction and history. Word War II has been explored from very different points of view, but almost usually from a European or American one. This novel presents the reader with a different historical and social perspective and it does a great job of letting us know that WWII also happened in a part of the Pacific that was not Pearl Harbor.

The World Waiting to be Made by Simone Lazaroo

I learned about Australian writer Simone Lazaroo and her works during her lessons at my M.A. Her debut novel, The World Waiting to be Made (1994) is partly autobiographical and can be studied as an amazing example of diasporic literature written by a woman.

From Book Depository:

A young woman journeys back to her birthplace, Singapore, and to Malacca, her ancestral home, to discover rich, complex and mysterious aspects of her own identity. Aspects of herself that had only been half remembered, hinted at, or understood during a dislocated childhood and adolescence growing up in contemporary suburban Australia.The World Waiting to be Made charts the uncertain progress of an outsider in search of both her personal history and a meaningful place in the world.

I have to say that The World Waiting to be Made is much more than a diaspora story. The narrator, born in Singapore, moves to Australia with her family when she is only 3 years old and she spends the next 20 years there. Her story is then one of struggle and adaptation in the 1970’s Australia.

The novel explores what it means to be Eurasian in Australia, but also what that means when you are a woman. Although Australia was no longer a colony in the 1970’s, the unnamed narrator faces covert racism from some the Anglo-descended people. She just listens other people talk how Asian she is or how non-normative she is while she struggles to understand her real identity. At one point, she is even told she is not “that kind of Asian” and she wonders what people mean with the word “Asian” that compromises so many different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures.

Lazaroo has a real talent for writing and creating characters. I found myself immediately sympathizing with the main character and her story. For example, her high school struggles make her experience universal: she wants to become friends with what she calls “the cool kids”, but her appearance seems a barrier to do so. When she is done with high school she has no idea what to do either, what to study, where to live. Apart from this, reading is addictive due to the organization: the book is divided into sections, chapters and little thematic excerpts. I found myself awake at 1 a.m saying to myself “just another excerpt more”.

I would totally recommend The World Waiting to be Made to anyone interested in Australian literature, women’s stories and migrants’ stories. Although Lazaroo admitted that the novel is partly autobiographical, one needs to keep in mind that once you organize your life and write about it, it becomes a sort of fiction. However, she explores growing-up, maturing, sexuality, relationships, friendship, religion, travelling and any other topic that a young woman faces nowadays.

Just as I finished writing an essay about this novel I came across the hashtag #DiversifyYourShelves on Twitter. I think Lazaroo is the perfect writer to add some diversity to anyone’s reading and although her books are not easy to find in Europe/USA, do not hesitate to buy one if you see them. I had the opportunity to borrow mine from the school library, something I had not done in a long time and which brought me as much pleasure as discovering Lazaroo as a writer.

On a side note, I would like to add that Simone is an amazing and inspiring teacher. She told us about her creative process and how she just writes and edits and puts a lot of hard work on her writing which she combines with her Creative Writing teaching at Murdoch University in Australia. She truly is passionate about her work and her writing and she showed us that although it may not always be easy to sit down and write, the important thing is that you just do it and work on the text. Just the perfect advice when I’m about to start my PhD!

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

The Engagement is a novel by Australian author Chloe Hooper. I was lucky enough to win this novel at Naomi’s blog and I was really excited about it. Sadly, the book didn’t turn out the success both Naomi and I thought it would be. However, I would like to thank her for running the giveaway.

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From Goodreads (excerpt):

Liese Campbell is working as an estate agent in Melbourne when she first meets Alexander Colquhoun. The handsome scion of a prominent farming family, he is searching for a pied-a-terre in the city. At another disappointing viewing, Liese leads Alexander to the bedroom, and they sleep together. Afterwards, he pulls out a roll of cash, and she takes three hundred dollars. ‘Half price’, she says jokingly, ‘because I like you.’ Liese is not a prostitute, but it is an erotic game, she thinks, that both parties are playing.

Whenever Alexander is in the city he calls her, and pays for sex. For Liese, who has travelled to Australia from England after losing her job, the relationship is fun, and a useful way to begin paying off her debts. When Liese decides to return home, she receives a letter from Alexander inviting her to the country for the weekend, and offering a price she cannot refuse. A few days of sex and luxury, she thinks – a final fling before she departs.

As you can see for the description, the book seemed perfect for me. But, from the very beginning I felt a detachment from the main character that remained with me the whole novel. Liese was a confused and chaotic character that should have appealed to me, since these kind of characters always do. But all throughout the novel I thought she had been careless and had behaved like a teenager. In fact, her behavior did not help me understand her choices.

However, what I did like was the Australian landscape. It had been a long time since I read a book settled in Australia, even though I am a huge Kate Morton fan. One of the things that I like the most about postcolonial settings is the contradictions tha come from the settlement and the place. In The Engagement Liese is trapped in a typically Victorian building in the middle of the hot, vast Australian landscape. That alone is a very powerful tool to make readers feel uneasy and out-of-place and it did help me feel like Liese did.

I read that this book is similar to Gone Girl, but I apart from a messed and confused main female character I do not know where the comparison comes from. Amy was a much more calculating and psychopathic character than Liese. I certainly cannot imagine Amy making the mistakes Liese did, but then again, I did not understand Liese at all.

So, maybe this book came at a difficult reading time for me, or maybe it was not my kind of story. But I suggest it to anyone interested in Australia and Australian literature because the contradictions of what the place was intended to be and what the landscape and geography was play a key role in the novel.

Poem: A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott

Just recently I did a series on postcolonialism and did not include a wonderful author I did not know yet: Derek Walcott. He is a West Indian with mixed ancestry: two of his grandparents were black and two were white. Being superficial, the result could not be better: he got both blue eyes and dark skin.

But, leaving superficial comments besides, his mixed ancestry has also influenced his work as an artist (a decision he took being a kid). However, reading one of his poems, I also found he is very influenced by the sea and the fluidity. This last concept of fluidity is very important in postcolonial theory: we are not fixed entities, we are in continous change and can adapt ourselves to new situations and contexts. Just like water does in different containers!

So, I leave here the first poem I read by Walcott, the one I liked the most and that deals with that reconstruction of an African past based on a continent many descendants of slaves have never visited and means nothing to them. Hope you enjoy it.

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

I have added links to the most complicated works so you can read a little bit and understand the poem. Basically, Walcott criticizes both African and European people because they both did the same: end other people’s lives. He also sees his mixed ancestry as something poisoning instead of enriching but still praises the African landscape, separating it from its inhabitants. At the same time, he also praises the English tongue, despite being an important tool of colonialism.

I would like to know your opinion about the poem:

As I said on my last post, I am a narrative girl, but I’ve discovered a like postcolonial poetry too much. I find it enriching and easier to understand thatnclassical poetry (Whitman, Dickinson etc). So, I have bought an antology on the diaspora poetry called Ten and which I have already recommended to any reader interested in postcolonialism.

Did you like the poem? Do you agree with the idea of returning to an African past (unknown to many) as something dangerous?

I personally agree with Walcott. Such a return is on a myth and not a reality. I understand that your ancestors being slaves may affect you, but, how can returning to a landscape you don’t know, a language that means nothing to you and to a culture that may be a slight part of you, enrich your life? I would rather focus on the multiculturality of my present and try to enjoy it as much as I can.

Further reading on the influence of slavery HERE.

Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Suggested readings

This is my last post on postcolonialism for the moment, so here you have the long-awaited and promised list of suggested works. Click on the titles to buy the books at Book Depository.

UPDATE: I will update this list with works I get to read in my courses.

POETRY

Ten by Bernardine Evaristo
The Next Poems by Mutabaruka
Postcolonial Poetry in English

NARRATIVE

How to read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (US migration)
Small Island by Andrea Levy
(Jamaica)     REVIEW
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
(Jamaica)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (US racism)  REVIEW
The Constant Gardener by John LeCarré (Kenya)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe REVIEW
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (West Indies)
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (West Indies)
Bless me Última by Rudolfo A. Anaya (Chicano/Mexican)
How the Garcia Girls lost their Accents by Julia Álvarez (Chicano/Mexican)
Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge (West Indies)
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (Australia)
Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton (Australia)
Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones (South Pacific)

PLAYS:

Anowa by Ama Ata Aidoo 

THEORY

Orientalism by Edward W. Said SUMMARY
The Empire Writes Back by Various Authors
Beginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Thanks everyone for coming and for your suggestions and opinions. Feel free to complete this list so other readers can enjoy your favourite works!