Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti

The books you love the most are often the hardest to review. That’s always been the case. Or the curse. To say I loved this book feels like an incredible understatement. It has stayed, pulsating, in the back of my mind days after I turned the last page. My thoughts constantly wander back to it, and I am left a little winded by the emotion of the story that overwhelms me each time.

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Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings has three main narratives running through. First is Mere’s, a young Māori woman living in 1880s New Zealand. She is on the cusp of discovering independence and love, at the cost of great sacrifice on her part. For she is in love with Iraia, the young Moriori man living on her father’s property as farmhand and all around helper. He is treated as someone lesser, an outsider, and must live with the stigma that is forced on people of Moriori descent. To cast her lot with him means giving up everything Mere has known.

In contemporary New Zealand are Lula and Bigs, twins born to their Māori mother and Pākehā (European) father. Lula has inherited her father’s pale skin, while Bigs resembles their darker skinned mother. Despite their fierce closeness from a young age, school yard taunts and real life eventually drive the two of them apart. The death of their mother might be the last saving factor of their relationship, and a chance to find out about a part of their heritage that has been buried for too long.

Linking these two is a nameless voice, a long lost soul flitting in between the lives of Mere and Iraia, and Lula and Bigs. It is heavy with sorrow and despair, but becomes infused with a certain strength as the story progresses.

Tina Makereti’s writing is beautiful. It is lyrical, but not flowery; it is delicate, but strong enough to carry the important stories that she’s weaving with it. I was especially taken with Mere and Iraia’s part of the story. They are both very young, and incredibly brave when they set off on their adventure, and I wanted to protect them from everything and anything that might crop up on their journey.Their story is a part of New Zealand history about which I am not very knowledgeable and I wanted to soak it all in.

Some facts (as gleaned by me, so please correct me if I’m wrong):

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Moriori were the indigenous people of the Chatham,or Rēkohu Islands, a small group of islands off New Zealand’s west coast. They were a people who prized non-violence. When the Taranaki Māori colonized Rēkohu it ended in the genocide of the Moriori. Any survivors were taken back to the main land and made to work as servants and slaves. The erasure of their people brought stigma and discrimination, and Moriori descendants were forced to suffer these prejudices.

Buried history is obviously a pressing issue in this novel. Following the death of their mother, Lula feels compelled to discover more about this part of her family’s legacy. Bigs on the other hand, who has already formed a strong connection to his Māori background, finds these new developments unsettling. Makereti explores these contentions with subtle realism. Identity and family history are complicated and multi-layered, and Lula’s and Bigs’  reactions speak to that. I would have liked to see more discussion and interaction between the siblings about this topic. Lula seemed to wait years to be close to her brother again, when it does happen it is not how she envisions it.

On the other hand, Makereti stresses the importance of finding connections in unexpected places. After all, that is what family history is about. It is when she is in a London museum that Lula feels a tugging for home, and it is with newly discovered family members that she unearths a long forgotten past. Whatever she may have lost, Lula also has much to gain.

The third mysterious voice was also a compelling one for me. I enjoyed piecing the narratives together, and finding out how they all fit.Things become clearer page by page, like an image slowly crystallizing before your eyes.

I have seen reviews that mentioned it was slightly frustrating – the unknown third voice, its pace and its tone. The thing is, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is one of those “wallowing” books. And by that I mean you, the reader, has to wallow in it. You have to soak it all in. It’s not a race to the last page to see how all the action is tied up. All the minutiae matters.  Soaking in all the details, immersing yourself in the lives of these characters. That is absolutely where the joy of this book lies. And that’s where the heartbreak is as well. I still have to hug this book to my chest every once in awhile. If you have read it, or are going to, I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. For those who are curious about this topic, Makereti suggests Moriori: A People Rediscovered by New Zealand historian Michael King.

Transcending the Gothic Canon

Gothic literature and I are pretty tight. What’s not to love? Isolated, looming mansions; floating, mysterious figures; sinister secrets. It speaks to the psychological thriller loving, mystery aficionado in me.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, a Gothic story will usually have these common identifiers:

  • an isolated, naive/idealistic/clueless protagonist (usually female);
  • who finds themselves in a large mansion (usually in the middle of nowhere);
  • the dark mansion will harbour a sinister secret of some sort;
  • that everyone else in the mansion is trying to keep from the protagonist;
  • this secret is a danger to the protagonist’s sense of identity, their physical well-being, and/or their emotional well-being (often it’s all three).
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A very recent & delicious addition to the Gothic canon

How the author chooses to present these can vary. Sometimes there are supernatural factors involved, and sometimes it can all be explained away by good old logic. Other times people are just plain crazy.

Gothic literature is labelled such for the Gothic style architecture of these great, looming mansions that these types of stories traditionally take place in. Over time, of course, the settings have changed. The great thing about Gothic literature is that it creates these parameters in which it can discuss the “unmentionables”. (And I don’t mean underwear.) It’s the place where the repressed comes out, and it does so with a vengeance. Everything that’s been swept under the rug no longer stays dutifully under the rug. The rug is now alive with all your worst thoughts, doubts, and everything bad that you ever wanted to do. Thus, the Gothic becomes a space in which social anxieties manifest, usually into a tangible monstrosity that can be pointed at, marveled at,and unpicked and discussed.

“Gothic monsters such as the vampire and the Frankenstein creature, for example, should not be read merely as nightmarish configurations of twisted fantasies, but important metaphors for understanding historically-specific socio-political crises. As Jeffrey Cohen posits, ‘the monster is born only at this metaphorical crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.’”

Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The first Gothic novel I read was Jane Eyre, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a part of this genre. Jane Eyre, published in the Victorian century, examined such outrageous notions as female anger, female desire and sexuality, and most outlandish of all: the female’s right to choose. Needless to say, sixteen year old me loved it. I did not expect to find a self-sufficient hero of  badassery garbed in a corset and sleeves wide enough to take out entire crowds.

Over time I have picked out and devoured various Gothic stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankentein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (possibly the first lesbian vampire story ever), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are all the Gothic Greats for me. But over time my reading tastes have also shifted dramatically to accommodate the marginalised authors: from continents other than North America and Europe, of varying degrees of sexuality and backgrounds, authors who push the boundaries of literature and dare to depict the world as it is. And I wanted Gothic stories from these authors, too.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon some magic words: the Asian Gothic, and the Post-colonial Gothic. The Gothic after all is about transcending boundaries, between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural. Who’s to say it can’t transcend geographical boundaries?

“… the Gothic has spawned many sub-species of itself including the postmodern Gothic, and more recently, postcolonial Gothic. This attests to the malleable nature of the Gothic to transcend its own historical, cultural and geographical parameters (its “canon”). After all, transgressing taboos, complicity with evil, the dread of life, violence, the return of the repressed (just to name some familiar Gothic themes) are not specific to any culture or people, but are experienced by all throughout history, although of course, the complexities in which these concerns take may vary from culture to culture.”

–  Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

In Western literature, the Gothic, when talking about the repressed, and the taboo has also examined The Other. The Other can be the monstrous, the irreverent thing that’s supposed to be kept in the dark, but it can also (unsurprisingly) be the foreign(er). In Dracula, Count Dracula is from Transylvania, the mysterious land of superstition and irrationality, trying to insinuate himself into London, where his very presence threatens their structure of science and rational thinking. Not to mention he’s literally a leech on their society. In Jane Eyre Jane’s alter ego is represented by :::spoiler alert::: Bertha Mason, the Caribbean foreigner whose rampant sexuality and madness are supposed to counter the calm, collected, and always in control Jane. Generally speaking, the Gothic has not been kind to non-Westerners.

But the Gothic is exactly the type of genre to subvert the conventional, even itself. It even transcends its own canon, as pointed out in the above quote. How powerful is it when the The Othered take the very tool that has been used to oppress and Other them (the tool being the Gothic genre, and simultaneously the English language), and use it, in their turn, to throw off the oppressors? Post-colonial and Asian Gothic can redefine the old canon to make way for a different set of Gothic stories. Not only that, but they can shed light on a Gothic genre that is as old and as long-standing as the Western one.

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Manichitrathazhu, a South Asian film with strong Gothic undertones

I’ve only just stumbled onto this concept of Post-colonial and Asian Gothic myself. Having read scraps of articles around this new canon, I would say I’ve only read two novels in this genre:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (which also fits into Caribbean Gothic, and is, incidentally, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the view point of Bertha Mason – talk about subversion) AND
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which falls into Post-colonial Gothic, and details the horrors of colonization of the body and the mind)

This convoluted post is also a way of asking you, dear reader, for any suggestions for stories that might fall into this category of Post-colonial and/or Asian Gothic. I will be publishing another post on South Asian Gothic myself sometime in the near future. As I said, though, it’s a genre that I’ve only just dipped into and I would very much like to dive further into it, so I welcome any and all suggestions.

Brother, who art thou?: “Lullaby” by Bernard Beckett

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Lullaby is a finalist for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adult Fiction. And it’s easy to see why. It opens with Theo, sitting in a hospital room with a therapist. His twin brother, Rene, has just been involved in an accident that has left him on the brink of death, with his brain severely damaged. Theo has been proposed with the choice of saving his brother. All he needs to do, in order to ensure that his brother will have a functioning brain, is allow the doctors to transfer a copy of his memories into that of his brother’s.

Without delving too deeply into the scientific realism of this premise (I am no neurologist), this book centers around questions of memory as individual identity, as well as memory as a collective constructed reality. These are intriguing questions and kept me hooked for the duration of the book. Memory is a fascinating, and frequently unreliable, thing. We rely on it so absolutely for our daily lives, and yet there are so many ways in which it fails us – sometimes even without our being aware of it. How many times, for example, have you revisited an event in the past only to find that you remember things differently to how your friends or family remember it? And how much value does our memory of a person’s behavior or personality influence our perception of them? And what happens when that memory s flawed?

As a young girl, one of the lobby security guards in the apartment building we lived in used to scare me. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about him that intimidated me. He picked up on this, and for his own amusement, used to try and scare me every time I had to pass him. I remember how he would laugh gleefully whenever I jumped or startled. I would dread having to come across him. In fact, I despised him so much I used to fantasize about him getting into all sort of mishaps. One that stands out the most is thinking, with relish, how he might have to fix a drain pipe, and imagining its contents raining down on him in a filthy deluge. It was immensely satisfying to the younger me. I remember mentioning this to my brother years later, only to have my brother remark that he had a similar “fantasy” as well. It struck me, then, how much our joint hatred of this man had culminated, from different processes, into a shared thought.It also strikes me that it could easily be the other way around – that my brother and I had discussed the best (worst) possible revenge to take the guard, and over time convinced ourselves that we’d thought of it on our own.

We believe our memories are our own, and our perceptions of the self is built on them. What happens then when those memories are inaccurate? And what happens when memories overlap, in all their inaccuracy? These are the questions Theo is forced to ask himself as he tries to decide on his brother’s fate. As Theo sits in a hospital room with a psychiatrist, talking of his past, we get to see how he and his twin brother played the usual twin pranks, spending entire days switching identities, convincing everyone else, and at times, even convincing themselves.

The frustrating thing, perhaps, about this book is that, while it asks a lot of questions, it doesn’t really answer many of them. Bernard Beckett is apparently known for his open-ended narratives. It’s not something that detracts from the whole but, personally, I would’ve liked a few answers sprinkled in there. Having said that, however, I will say this is an excellent and thought-provoking read, and I’d recommend it to everyone and their dog.

Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

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The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like the  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)

Almost Everything, Everything Was On Point

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Maddy is sick. Really sick. Like can’t-leave-the-house-or-her-body-will-shut-down kind of sick. As far as she can remember of her eighteen years, she has been confined to her home with her mother and her nurse, Carla, for company. She has been home-schooled, and her only visitor is her architect teacher. Maddy is happy. She is happy reading all the books she can, building mini architecture models, and having game nights with her mom.

But when the new boy next door, Olly, walks into her life everything changes. Suddenly Maddy wants more. She wants to see the world and experience everything it has to offer.

I have to admire the dexterous balance that Nicola Yoon strikes with her simple, easy to gobble up writing style that simultaneously manages to be quite beautiful at the same time. She really does make it seem effortless. Reading the novel feels like slipping into a sundae.

Maddy is a likeable character. She is intelligent, mature, with a sense of humour, and good nature that’s allowed her to face her unique life without wallowing deeply in bitterness.Olly is equally well-characterized. He comes with his own set of problems. His home life is tainted by his dad’s violent outbursts. Maddy and Olly’s easy interaction was enjoyable to read.

Despite these good points, however, this novel did leave me feeling a bit non-plussed. First off, as enjoyable as the banter between Maddy and Olly was, their immediate adoration for each other was not. It was easy to see that they were going to fall in love, and I was all for them falling in love but the journey to the destination was far too short to be believable. Or at least for me to believe that their love had weight. I think the initial stages of their relationship could have been fleshed out a whole lot more.

Secondly, there is a twist at the end of the novel which renders the entire preceding character development that Maddy undergoes completely irrelevant. It was far too easy a solution and it was actually quite disappointing to read. I was eager to see how Yoon might portray the harder choices in life, and the consequences of sticking to them, and while she does to an extent, she doesn’t fully deliver on her message. The relationship between Maddy and her mother could also have been fleshed out, especially near the end. When the novel ends, it does not feel satisfying at all. Yoon tries to tie everything up with a neat little bow, and considering what she was trying to offer the payoff felt very insufficient.

The Diverse Books Tag

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Naz at ReadDiverseBooks has started up a great conversation on the twittersphere with #DiverseBookBloggers. Those who blog, and are marginally represented in the literature that is widely available for consumption have been able to gather and discuss the needs and importance of representation and diversity. It’s not simply throwing around the word “diverse” and being satisfied with that, but examining nuanced, and respectful portrayals of various cultures, and the positive results that such portrayals can bring about.

Following the enthusiastic response at twitter, Naz then came up with this tag to promote the emerging works of diverse authors out there. With this tag, you can choose books that you’ve already read and would recommend, or ones that you wish to read. If there are none on your tbr list that doesn’t fall in the category, then you can check out lists on goodreads, or simply do a quick Google search. There are a lot of newly published authors representing a wide range of cultures and nationalities, so there’s plenty to choose from.

And as Naz says:

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.”

Anyways, without further ado, here are my picks:

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

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I saw this book around tumblr, and have been wanting to read it after reading the blurb. Juliet is just heading off to do an internship after coming out to her family. She’s not sure that her mother will be speaking to her again, and so when she goes off to the internship it’s with hopes that working for her academic idol will help her on her journey in discovering herself. I can’t wait to read this book. I’m always desperately searching for “new adult” books. “New adult” is the term that’s used for stories centering around those who have just left high-school, and there isn’t a whole lot of fiction about that. The fact that this story’s protagonist is also Puerto-Rican, and a lesbian just makes it even more rare, and even better.

Find a book set in Latin America.

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This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year or so, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to include it in this list. I’ve read some of Allende’s short stories awhile ago, and her writing is lyrically atmospheric. This widely loved novel of magical realism is an epic story of three generations of the Trueba family, and I can’t wait to immerse myself in this story. And don’t you just love that cover?

Find a book about a person with a disability.

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Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf, judging me for still not having read it. Naoki Hgashida wrote this book when he was thirteen years old, and it’s his account of what it’s like to live with autism. It has been lauded for its honesty and heart, and answers all questions about autism that family and friends of individuals of autism have been curious about. I’m not very informed about autism, so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this one.

Find a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

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I’m currently reading this one, and for someone who hasn’t read extensively when it comes to the Science Fiction genre, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Phoenix is an “accelerated woman”, a genetic experiment concocted and raised in Tower 7, a mysterious organization that specializes in such experiments. Phoenix has only been “alive” for two years, but has the body of a grown woman, and a mind which consumes and digests information like no other. Soon, however, events transpire that brings Phoenix to the realization that Tower 7 is nothing but a prison, and in an extraordinary burst of flames, she burns herself and her prison-like home down. That’s only the beginning of Phoenix’s journey however. This book is described as one of magical futurism, a unique label that I haven’t come across before. This is the prequel to Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award. Okorafor is a wonderful storyteller, and this is one I’d definitely recommend.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

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Darling has grown up in Zimbabwe, running between the shanty homes that she and her friends live in, playing games, and stealing guavas from those that are far wealthier than them. They all dream of escaping their country, envying their relatives who’ve run off to the West. Eventually, Darling, too, leaves Zimbabwe to live in the States with her aunt and uncle. Of course that comes with its own challenges, and Darling doesn’t find her life is nearly as fulfilling living away from her home country as she thought it would be. This one is a strange recommendation, because there was something about it that didn’t quite fit well. I remember the novel’s ending felt far too abrupt. At the same time, however, this novel is brazenly honest about Darling’s suffering. Her hollowed realization that her life is not turning out the way she hoped it would left me with a deeply sorrowful feeling once I finished. Bulawayo’s writing is minimal, but powerful, I think, and I’d recommend this one simply for its thought-provoking story line.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

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I’ve seen this book around shops and libraries town but never actually picked it up. Perhaps if I had, I might have known that it’s a story about an Aboriginal girl, Oblivia, living in a future Australia, drastically transformed by climate change. Apparently, this book intertwines  myths and folklore, as well as experimenting with linguistic phrases from English, Aboriginal languages, French and Latin. I have to say the premise intrigues me, so I’ll be getting my hands on this as soon as I can.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.).

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This novel follows the lives of two cousins, Latha and Tsunami Wijesinha, chronicling their stories from girlhood to their maturation. Set during the emergence of the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, there are nuanced issues of caste and racism. The politics, however, are simply a backdrop for the story of the Wijesinha family. Latha’s vacation with her wealthier cousin’s family offers her a variety of experiences, and an escape from her more traditional mother’s views. As time goes on however, and a shocking scandal rocks Tsunami’s family, the girls find that it’s Latha’s family that offers the comfort and solace needed for two young girls trying to make their way in a harsh society. This book is steeped in beautiful writing, and wonderful references to literature. Yasmine Gonneratne is an academic of English Literature and her appreciation for it is obvious. Her own writing is masterful and honestly a joy to read. It’s a story that you’ll want to take slowly, just to be able to luxuriate in the wonderfully weaved sentences, and the fulfilling lives of the two girls.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

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This is a recently published novel set in Seattle, during the anti World Trade Organization protests. The novel’s narrative is constructed around the view points of seven characters, though the central one who opens and closes the story is Victor. Victor is a young, biracial, homeless man who has been wandering the world following the death of his mother, and his realization that he and his father have vastly conflicting ideas of the world. He is homeless by choice, an individual who has become disillusioned with the world he lives in. Unwittingly he becomes swept into the WTO protests. To make things more interesting, Victor’s father is the Chief of Police, stationed to control the protestors. Of course, some very ugly and violent situations ensue. Yapa addresses a world of complex issues in this one: human rights, economic rights, racism, equality. However, the story hones in on the compassion and empathy that humans need to cultivate for each other.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

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Once again, this is an issue that I’m not very informed about, so I decided to opt for a piece of non-fiction. Let me tell you, it was a  little difficult trying to locate a text available in my local libraries that was a piece of non-fiction, actually written about someone who is part of the transgender community. This one especially appealed to me because I’m quite interested in how feminism accommodates – or fails to accommodate – transgender women. Intersectionality is certainly important, and I’m eager to read Serano’s account.

There we are, those are my picks. If you’ve read any of these, do leave a comment and let me know how you found the experience.

I’d like to thank Naz for this wonderful tag. Though I do make it a point to read as widely as possible about people from all walks of life, I realized that I still have a lot of way to go in that regard.

Now to tag some other bloggers:

Sabeena at thepocbookreader

Emma at wellthumbedbooks

Morgan at happilyeverbookish

Stefanie at yourdaughtersbookshelf

Sophie at Portal in the Pages

Naida at The Bookworm

And if there’s anyone else who’s interested in this tag, please let me know and I will change that asap. I’m keen to know how you all get on. Hope everyone’s having a wonderful weekend!

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

I’m not quite sure how to begin this review. This book is not an overly large one, but I feel as if I experienced a lot as I was reading it. It was both a draining and inspiring read.

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Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, a country she describes as “unimaginable” and “indescribable” in interviews. From the moment she’s born, she’s imprisoned under North Korea’s oppressive government rule. Yeonmi’s childhood is basically a study in hunger; she describes how food, or rather the painful lack of it, was a constant theme in her young life. Acute hunger numbs little Yeonmi to the daily horrors that she has been born into: seeing children her own age or younger begging and dying on the streets; seeing friends and neighbours executed for such transgressions as watching a Hollywood film.

Despite these daily nightmares, Yeonmi and her people are told that they live in the best country in the world, led by a benevolent and wise leader who only has their best interests at heart. They see the suffering and pain around them, but have to believe – or least pretend to believe – that they are in the best situation they can be in. As far as the children of Yeonmi’s generation can tell, this is the truth: despite the lack of resources, technology, and inequality in education, North Koreans are being well taken care of. Yeonmi’s parents, and their contemporaries, however, are more aware of their country’s decline in resources, and are slowly coming to realize its manipulative propaganda and dangerous totalitarian rule.

I know it’s trite, but having read 1984, it was chilling to read Yeonmi’s autobiography, and see how many similarities there were between an imagined dystopia, and what is very much a reality for an entire nation of people today. Yeonmi also remarks how much the novel Animal Farm spoke to her own experience.

Even when Yeonmi escapes to China, the horrors don’t subside. She and her mother become entangled in human trafficking, and Yeonmi has to continue to draw on the strength of her spirit to look after the two of them. China’s harsh policy on North Korean refugees means that Yeonmi, and others like her, are unable to reach out to the authorities for help. Instead, they are forced to be exploited, and exchange one life of oppression for another.

Once Yeonmi and her mother are resettled in South Korea, Yeonmi works hard to achieve her dreams of fitting in with a new people. She takes advantage of the education and resources that become available to her. Yeonmi has now become a strong activist voice for the suffering of the North Korean people. Her speeches and interviews have been viewed online numerous times. Her burning desire to live, to do more than just survive, is evident in her story. In one of her interviews, she remarks that if she were to die now she’d be happy, as she had finally tasted freedom. It’s a powerful, and weighty remark. Yeonmi’s story is a heart-breaking and revealing one. Not only does it shed light on North Korea’s harsh regime; it also urges us to take up our duty as free humans. At the One Young World conference, Yeonmi asks the guests to educate themselves and others as much as they can about North Korea. I think anyone who reads this book will benefit from it; besides being an incredible tale about survival and a resilient spirit, it’s also a story that urges us to be more empathetic towards our fellow human beings.